The Mobile Utility Gap and Literacy Challenges in Oral-Language Communities: SMS use by Berber Women

SMS-based initiatives designed for women in developing countries rely on the ability to communicate via texting -- skills that are often absent in communities where the primary form of communication is oral, where multiple dialects are spoken and where literacy levels are low. In rural Berber (Amazigh) communities in southwest Morocco, illiterate women face numerous technical, linguistic and cultural barriers to texting. For example, women in the Ait Baamrane region operate in a complex spoken-language environment that combines Berber and Moroccan Arabic dialects. Using SMS is a challenge for many of them because they are unable to easily negotiate Latin-letter or Arabic-character keypads and phone menus. Furthermore, women and girls in this region face cultural restrictions that limit their access to formal education.

In our research, we identify barriers to use and factors that contribute to the mobile phone utility gap, specifically focusing on ways to harness SMS to increase literacy. By working collaboratively with members of a women’s Argan oil cooperative and with women involved in a fogwater project in the Anti-Atlas Mountains, we examine how simple mobile phones can contribute to literacy in oral-language based communities.  In addition, we explore how the inability to SMS may constitute a ‘technology tax’ on illiterate women.

Leslie L. Dodson

Leslie Dodson is pursuing a PhD in Technology, Media and Society in the ATLAS Institute at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Her area of research is Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICTD) with a focus on the intersection of ICTs, small enterprise and gender in North Africa. Leslie is a recipient of a long-term study grant from the American Institute for Maghrib Studies (AIMS) and she receives research support from the Association Dar Si-Hmad in Morocco.

Prior to pursuing a PhD, Leslie was a senior foreign correspondent for CNBC, MSNBC, NHK-Tokyo and Reuters Financial Television where she specialized in news coverage of emerging market economies and the environment.

Leslie has a Masters Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University in Illinois; a Certificate in Conservation Biology from the Center For Environmental Research and Conservation at the Earth Institute, Columbia University in New York; and a Certificate in Permaculture Design. She frequently guest lectures in university journalism and international development courses and has trained writers and producers in newsrooms around the world.

Her Ted Talk on “Don’t Misrepresent Africa” addresses how images of poverty are produced and presented by the news industry, NGOs and academia.

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