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ISLAMABAD: Even three years after the previous PPP government regularised their services on the intervention of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, around 80,000 Lady Health Workers (LHWs) still wait for their salaries and other benefits as regular employees.

Left with no other option to overcome the severe financial crunch, the LHWs, who lost scores of their colleagues during the polio campaigns and have been working in the flood and earthquake-affected areas, are now considering launching protests and strikes.

However, Minister for National Health Services (NHS) Saira Afzal Tarar blamed the devolution of the health sector for the problems being faced by the LHWs. The minister claimed that she was trying her best to address the issue as soon as possible.

According to a report of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the LHW cadre was started through the Prime Minister’s Programme for Family Planning and Primary Care in 1994. The objective of the programme was to provide essential primary healthcare services to communities and fulfil the unmet health needs in rural and urban slum areas.

Under the programme, 100,000 LHWs were appointed, each covering about 1,000 people. During the first eight years, the government spent $155 million on the programme but only 11 per cent of the amount came from external donors. Each lady health worker was attached to a government health facility from where they received training, a small allowance and medical supplies.

The LHWs continued demanding regularisation of their services and from time to time held protests. During the tenure of the PPP government, the Supreme Court took notice of their issue and instructed the government to regularise their services.

Zahida Mazhar, the secretary LHWs Union Chitral chapter, told Dawn that in 2012 on the intervention of the apex court, the then PPP government announced to reguralise the services of the LHWs and even issued confirmation letters to them.

However, the LHWs are yet to get the benefits of regular employees.

“According to the letter, we are regular employees in Basic Pay Scale (BPS) 7 but we are yet to get any benefit as regular employees. After so many years, we still get a remuneration of Rs8,000 per month which is only Rs266 a day,” she said.

“Over 60 health workers have sacrificed their lives during the polio campaigns. We know that our life would be at stake during the polio campaigns but still we continue going door to door to save the children from the crippling disease. There are 514 LHWs in Chitral, which was declared a polio-free district about a decade ago,” she said.

According to another LHW, Shahina Mehmood, houses of 10 LHWs were destroyed during the recent earthquake in Chitral but they continued working in the field.

Another LHW from Chitral, Sadia Mansoor, said even after three years the service structure for the LHWs could not be announced.

“We only have appointment letters stating that we are permanent employees. We even don’t get the Rs8,000 on time. Almost every second month, our remuneration is delayed,” she said.

The LHWs called upon Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to look into the problems of the LHWs.

The LHWs said they did not want to launch agitations and strikes because they realised that their role was important in the rehabilitation activities in the flood and quake-affected areas. But if the government did not resolve their issue, they would be left with no other option but to take to the streets.

Minister Saira Tarar added that she was aware of the problems being faced by the LHWs. In 2012, the LHW programme was run under the federal government which provided most of the needed resources for it.

“However, after devolution of the health department, it became the responsibility of the provinces and the Planning Commission refused to continue funding for LHWs,” she said.

“Now we are trying to bring both the Planning Commission and provinces to a negotiating table and set some formula regarding the needed resources to provide all the benefits available to regular government employees to the LHWs,” she said.

Published in Dawn, December 14th, 2015