A few days ago, news broke of a pregnant woman who was turned away from a public hospital and as a result lost her baby due to the delay in accessing maternal health services.
While this woman’s story sparked national outrage, the mistreatment of pregnant women seeking maternal health care is a common occurrence in Kenya’s healthcare system. And it is exacerbated by the current doctors’ strike.
The woman was denied medical attention at Pumwani Maternity Hospital, a facility which has been in the news previously for the mistreatment of women.
In 2012, two women, Margaret and Maimuna, were illegally detained at Pumwani Maternity Hospital for their inability to pay hospital fees. They were subjected to physical, mental, and verbal abuse.
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Both women sued the hospital and the government for human rights violations. As a result, in 2015 the High Court of Kenya ordered the Ministry of Health to stop the discrimination and abuse experienced by women in public hospitals, and the Nairobi County to compensate Margaret and Maimuna for the violation of their rights. Margaret and Maimuna are representative of scores of women across Kenya, but most of them are never able to access justice for these violations of their rights.
The Constitution of Kenya 2010 states that every person has a right to the highest attainable standard of health, which includes reproductive health services. And even though President Kenyatta mandated that public health facilities provide free, universal maternal health services in 2013, pregnant women are still routinely denied admission.
Those who are admitted are often subjected to emotional, physical and verbal abuse, neglected during childbirth, and even at risk of being detained in facilities after delivery if they can’t afford to pay the bill.
These practices violate women’s fundamental human rights, and endanger their health and lives.
And the Government is itself frustrating the presidential directive on free maternity by allowing these reproductive rights abuses to occur and by failing to reach an agreement with the striking doctors and give the health professionals the resources they need to provide citizens with quality medical services.
About 8,000 Kenyan women die from pregnancy-related complications each year.
On paper, the Government of Kenya has developed policies and guidelines to address preventable maternal deaths, including the Kenya Health Policy, 2014–2030 which aims to attain the highest possible standards of health, in a manner responsive to the needs of the population. However there has been slow progress towards implementing these policies.
The Kenyan government and Ministry of Health must be held accountable for denial of medical care and resources for public health providers.
As a member state of the African Union and the African Human Rights System, Kenya has ratified regional and international human rights treaties that form part of our national law. These treaties in addition to our Constitution, protect the right to health, sexual and reproductive rights, and women’s rights.
It’s time the Government of Kenya advances its commitments to provide quality, universal maternal health services. As a first step, the government through the Ministry of Health should hold negotiations with the medical practitioners and reach a mutual agreement on the contents of their collective bargaining agreement to provide better salaries, benefits increments and adequate working conditions for doctors.
Secondly, the Government must ensure medical practitioners have the right equipment and a conducive working environment to enable them execute their mandate. These systemic shortcomings underpin the low quality of care and violations of women’s human rights that occur during labor and delivery and within health care service provision.
Lastly, the government must fully implement favorable policies to advance women’s right to quality maternal health care. Enabling women to safely experience pregnancy and childbirth requires appropriate laws and policies, adequate working conditions, and accountability on behalf of the Government.