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-four years since the first loans were given, Gaza has accounted for 25.5 per cent of our microfinance work, issuing a total of 121,248 loans worth US $158.7 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 2014, as a result of the hostilities during July-August, clients in Gaza received just 2,967 loans, 19 per cent less than the previous year. This improved over the past 3-year period by 41 per cent when clients were financed with 4,172 loans in 2017 with a portfolio valued at US $6.3 million.
Even in such difficult political and operational circumstances, The UNRWA Department of Microfinance 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 2017, it stands at 43 per cent. Youth between 18 and 30 years of age constitute 31.3 per cent of our clients; in 2017, these young Gazans received 1,307 loans worth US $1.99 million. A majority of our clients in the Gaza Strip, 91 per cent, are those considered low-income, earning no more than double the Palestinian national poverty line.