How will Tunisia include its growing poor in an increasingly digital society?

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This piece was written as part of  Advox's partnership with the Small Media Foundation to bring you the UPROAR initiative, a collection of essays highlighting challenges in digital rights in countries undergoing the UN's Universal Periodic Review process.

Tunisia used to pride itself on its high level of literacy, especially among women. But, since the 2011 revolution, the country has been in free fall. School dropouts have increased, with thousands leaving each year without being able to read, write and use online information meaningfully.

A two-speed Tunisia

Things are not getting better in Tunisia with a new grim indicator on education. The Tunisian Minister of Social Affairs Malek Zahi said that “there are today over 2 million illiterates representing a huge challenge to our development.” It amounts to almost 20 percent of the Tunisian population. To compare, this rate is barely 1 percent in most Western countries. Illiteracy is higher in the rural and inland regions of the center and the northwest, reflecting the countrywide economic disparity. More alarming, illiteracy is today found among the young — 70 percent of illiterate people are among those who left school early, aged between 12 to 18. At an age when they should be digital natives, many young Tunisians are starting life without the foundational skills to navigate an increasingly complex and digital world.

In this context, it is likely that the social and digital divide between the more and less educated in Tunisia will grow in the coming years if there is not focused intervention on digital skills. The more the gap grows, the more there is a risk of the poorest being excluded and left behind, threatening social cohesion. Hadjer, a public-school teacher who was asked to retire early, told Global Voices about the deplorable situation:

The middle-class, which used to be the backbone of the country, has shrunk. Today there is a two-speed Tunisia with a parallel system in education, healthcare, employment … People are living in social silos and insulating themselves. Parents who can afford it are putting their children into private schools. The poorest are wandering the streets, doing precarious badly paid jobs or looking to smuggle themselves abroad.

Digital illiteracy: “The internet is complicated to use”

While cost remains a barrier for the poorest and young people, as outlined by recent research on digital inclusion in Tunisia conducted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), a larger problem is the lack of knowledge and understanding of information technology itself. The main reason reported for not using the internet is not knowing how to use it. Even if people have access to technology, they need some basic knowledge to make good use of the internet. Najoua, a public servant working for a program for the integration of young people in the labor market, told Global Voices:

“Unfortunately access to the internet hasn’t necessarily translated to empowerment. Many don’t know how to use the internet to find online useful information and services. The internet is still not perceived and understood as a space that can be used for learning and help to get skills, services and even jobs.”

It is because, in Tunisia, people’s understanding of the internet is mostly concentrated on social media, and more particularly Facebook, which is the most used social network in Tunisia. It had in January 2020 more than 6.9 million active users representing 75 percent of the population. It is the principal source of information and misinformation. Many have denounced how social media has fueled social tensions. Professor of journalism Sadok El Hammami explained that, in Tunisia, “Facebook is invading our daily lives and needs to be regulated so that it is not a threat to our lives.”

This is doubly important given that those who have not had the education, have less developed critical thinking skills and are therefore more vulnerable to propaganda and fake news. When Tunisian president Kais Saied claimed that there was a “criminal plan to change the Tunisian demographic composition by foreign powers” in February 2023, a torrent of fake news on social media spread hatred against Sub-Saharan Africans. People could not make the distinction between truth and lies, and unleashed a backlash of racial abuse.

Because they lack the awareness and the tools, navigating the internet safely and protecting data and privacy are also even more of a challenge for women. According to the media platform, Nawaat, 80 percent of women have suffered online violence in Tunisia. This violence is multidimensional (it includes sexual harassment, stalking, and intimidation) and is widespread on social networks, where Tunisians spend most of their time. Anxiety, depression and withdrawal from society are on the rise.

Lack of inclusive and accessible content

As the world continues rapidly to transition into the digital age, institutions must take proactive holistic measures to ensure that the needs of the poorest communities are included both in the supply — ensuring content is inclusive — and skill sets — ensuring people are digitally literate enough to fully benefit and engage. This is because designing, testing and implementing digital solutions, no matter how well they are simplified, remains an expensive process. Encouraging empathy and awareness of digital poverty are necessary if the supply-side issues of lack of inclusiveness are to be addressed. Content online needs to be in a language and a medium that is easy to understand. But currently, most of the content online is written. Tunisian daily La Presse highlighted that, since “most digital content is in written form, its assimilation is complicated for those who do not master the basic foundation of reading, writing or arithmetic.” With over half of web content in English, Arabic, spoken by about 4.5 percent of the world’s population, makes up less than 1 percent of total online content. People who are fluent mainly in Arabic, with limited ability to read English or French, are therefore cut off from most content online.

Offline and online literacy: A social justice issue

In 2021, with the support of the international community, Tunisia launched the “School of the second chance”  to reinsert every year about 1,000 young school leavers aged between 12 and 18 across the country into education and professional training. The program is multidisciplinary and personalized to the needs of the students. It focuses on basic literacy skills and includes the use of the internet. Civil society organizations are also conducting a wide range of media and information literacy projects with schools and young people. These initiatives, though welcomed and so much needed to equip all citizens with skills to understand, engage and create information, should be accelerated and scaled up.

As the world moves faster and deeper into a digital society of knowledge and services — with e-commerce, e-learning, and e-administration, among others — it is critical that everyone, especially those who are less educated, be able to make the most of the digital transformation. There is no time to waste to integrate digital literacy in any education program for the most vulnerable, so the internet can be a force for good.

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