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Small loans offer glimmer of hope to poor women: UN

GENEVA, March 7 (Reuters) - Small loans could help millions of poor women create jobs, support their families and narrow the gender gap, United Nations and banking experts said.

According to International Labour Organisation (ILO) data released on Friday, there are now 1.2 billion women working around the world, some 200 million more than a decade ago.

But the female share of the global work force has been stuck at 40 percent over the same period, with relatively few women employed in North Africa, South Asia and other poorer regions, the U.N. agency said on the eve of International Women’s Day.

“Remaining outside of the labour force is often not a choice but an imposition. It is likely that women would opt for remunerated work outside the home if it became acceptable to do so,” it said in its Global Employment Trends for Women report.

Many women are held back from employment because they lack adequate education or training, because of child-rearing and other family duties, and because of cultural obstacles.

BARRIERS TO FINANCE

In developing countries, barriers to financing are another impediment to would-be female entrepreneurs who have no property or other collateral needed to secure traditional loans.

Susan Maybud of the ILO’s bureau for gender equality said that microfinancing -- small loans given to the poor, generally at slightly elevated interest rates -- could play an important role empowering women with no other economic lifeline.

“Microfinance is really their one glimmer of hope, their one way out of poverty,” Maybud told Reuters. “I do see it as a potential for bridging the gender gap.”

She said that households where women have borrowed from institutions such as Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, have been shown to invest more in education, nutrition, and shelter, with broad knock-on effects.

“Microloans can go a very, very long way,” she said. “We have just started with this, and I think it is something that can be scaled up and will be scaled up.”

A recent survey of 3,000 microfinance institutions by Microcredit Summit Campaign showed 133 million people had received the tiny loans by the end of 2006, up from 13 million nine years ago.

Many of those clients were women earning less than $1 a day.

Citigroup C.N, one of the global leaders in the sector, has said that microfinance would probably continue to grow despite signs of trouble in the global economy.

The founder of the New York-based organisation Women’s World Banking, Michaela Walsh, said the scale of microfinance lending stood to grow severalfold in coming years.

“If you calculate the total amount of loans given by all the microindustry in the world, it covers about one third of its potential -- not even -- for getting loans out to low-income and poor people,” she said in a telephone interview.

Walsh, who was the first female manager of Merrill Lynch International MER.N, said that microfinance was critical to creating businesses and enterprises that could spawn more jobs.

“Micro grows to macro,” she said. (Editing by Jonathan Lynn)

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