19/03/2014 07:19 GMT | Updated 17/05/2014 06:59 BST

Connected Women

Right now, millions of women around the world cannot read. They are unable to read to their children, help them with their school work, read public transport information or understand the words written on a medicine bottle.

Wafaa Mohamad Ramadan, 52, was one of those women until just a couple years ago. She once signed a document she could not read in which she unintentionally agreed to give up her possessions. Her illiteracy led to many worrying moments, such as the time she gave her child the wrong medicine. And then she discovered she could learn to read with the help of a simple mobile literacy app. The app gave Wafaa the flexibility to learn on the move and while at home. She can read and she is now teaching illiterate friends and family.

Wafaa is one of many. An estimated 187 million women across Vodafone's markets are illiterate - and simple mobile-based literacy programmes have the potential to help many of them learn to read and write, as well as learn basic mathematics.

Vodafone's Connected Women report has found that 5.3 million women could learn to read by 2020 if similar mobile-based literacy programmes were available in other developing countries. And the economic benefits of teaching a woman to read are significant. Scaling mobile-based literacy programmes would empower women to secure new work opportunities, with the research finding this would lead to an annual economic benefit of $3.4 billion from 2020. Everyone, male or female, has the right to an education and this research demonstrates that the benefits of a more educated population are both social and economic.

But ensuring women everywhere can benefit from mobile technology is not simply about making the right services available. It is about women having ownership of mobile phones in the first place. Recent GSMA research found that there are 300 million fewer female mobile subscribers than male subscribers globally - and the mobile gender gap is growing. Around 91 million of these women are living in our markets - and this number is forecast to rise to 142 million by 2020. The Connected Women report found that closing this gender gap could have an economic benefit to women and society of more than $22 billion annually from 2020 - a number achieved through an increase in employment opportunities enabled by simple mobile phone ownership.

Women report feeling more empowered, independent and safe when they have a mobile phone. A simple mobile device has the power to dramatically improve their lives.

For small business owners in emerging markets, mobile phones are broadening their network and customer base, providing opportunities they previously never thought possible. A year ago, Vodafone Turkey introduced a programme called 'Women First Club', a social business model for Turkish women which empowers them, through mobile technology, to build their own small businesses.

Many women living in rural communities, who previously sold their crafts just within their local communities, are now seeing a dramatic increase in turnover. One such woman is Muazzes Ozer, who lives with her husband and two children near Mersin in Turkey. She used to spend most of her day travelling to neighbouring villages and cities to sell her crafts. Then she started to advertise and sell her products on the Women First Club's virtual marketplace and her earnings have sinceincreased by 500 per cent. She now employs 100 women.

Empowering women is a difficult task the world over - especially in more traditional societies - but it is not an impossible one. I am grateful to work in an industry that plays an important role in empowering women. Through the adoption of mobile technology, enormous positive changes are taking place for women in both their economic and social lives, particularly by closing the digital divide in the less developed parts of the world. I am hugely motivated by the success stories that continue to come out of our initiatives targeting women.Women are able to achieve so much when they are provided with opportunities like these.

Serpil Timuray spoke at the Vodafone Foundation's Connected Women Summit on 3 March