Gaza was the initial location for UNRWA microfinance activities, which began in 1991 with an initial capital fund of less than US $500,000. Several of our initiatives were also first launched there, including collective loans to groups of women entrepreneurs, in 1994, and microenterprise credit loans, in 1997. Over the twenty-two years since the first loans were given, Gaza has accounted for 34 per cent of our microfinance work, receiving a total of 101,965 loans worth US $115.8 million.
In the year before hostilities broke out in December 2006, Gazans received 12,000 loans, worth a total of US $10.00 million. After the subsequent blockade and sanctions, however, it has become more difficult for us to maintain the growth we achieved in the past. In 2012, clients in Gaza received 3,602 loans, five per cent more than the 3,443 they received the previous year. The decline in our contribution to Gaza's economy was more marked, falling from US $6.21 million to US $5.67 million.
Even in such difficult political and operational circumstances, UNRWA's microfinance department has remained committed to helping Gazans access credit and loans that enable them to develop or expand businesses, build household assets or cover their basic consumption, education and healthcare needs. The majority of loans in Gaza, 66 per cent, are used to help small businesses - those employing fewer than five workers - develop and maintain their reserves of short-term working capital.
UNRWA has maintained a commitment to ensuring that all Gazans, no matter their economic status, age or gender, have access to our microfinance. The percentage of our clients who are women increased in 2012, it stands at 38 per cent. Refugee youth between 18 and 30 years of age constitute 23 per cent of our clients; in 2012, these young Gazans received 1,070 loans worth US $1.43 million. A majority of our clients in the Gaza Strip, 77 per cent, are those considered low-income, earning no more than double the Palestinian national poverty line.