The newly released Global Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum signifies progress, but reveals that there remains much to be done to ensure equal access to education, particularly in less developed countries. A trained and empowered workforce leads to economic growth, but without investing in half of that workforce – girls and women – we undermine the global economy by ceding their collective talents and leadership.

USAID estimates that when 10 percent more girls attend school, a country’s GDP increases an average of 3 percent. Yet, when the majority of the world’s labor force is female, uneducated and underpaid, it is clear that something must change if women are to lift themselves, and their countries, out of poverty.

We know that for every year a girl is educated beyond the average, her wages increase by 15 percent, which in turn benefits her family, community and society. Yet, two-thirds of the world’s 775 million illiterate are women, 98 percent living in the developing world.

There is hope. The universal approach proven to increase the status of women is education. As the leader of Room to Read, a global non-profit organization focused on literacy and gender disparity in education across Asia and Africa, I have witnessed first-hand the transformative effect of empowering girls with a high-quality education.

One example is Prem, once a scholar in Room to Read’s Girls’ Education program, and now a 21-year-old nursing student. Prem is from Nepal, which ranks 123rd in the Global Gender Gap Index overall and 125th for literacy, placing Nepal in the bottom 15. Prem’s mother and two elder sisters are uneducated and work daily in a riverbed to earn a meager living. Through the power of education, Prem is now creating a brighter future for herself and her family and is on her way to breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

It is great to see the progress in the Global Gender Gap Report, but we cannot afford to forget those among the bottom ranks like Prem. Nepal, as well as other countries where Room to Read works such as Cambodia and Zambia, are places where we need to strategically focus and devote our resources. I look forward to a day when stories like Prem’s are not unique, and girls are enabled to step away from a life of poverty into a world of possibility.

Author: Erin Ganju is Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Room to Read, a global organization that seeks to transform the lives of millions of children in the developing world by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education. Room to Read aims to reach 10 million children with its programs by 2015. http://www.roomtoread.org

Image: A woman is reading a book in a bookstore in Shanghai REUTERS/Aly Song