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Court upholds Sh2.5m award to mother in traumatic birth experience

For every woman, nine months of carrying a baby in the womb and the labour pains while bringing life to earth are priceless experiences.

However, in some instances, mothers narrate harrowing tales of birth attendants and nurses who make the experience hell on earth.

They paint pictures of 'ogres' working in hospitals… Some experiences are so despicable as mothers are humiliated, insulted and assaulted as they labour.

So is the story of Josephine Ongwen.

As a result of negligent and inhumane hospital nurses, Ongwen will go home with Sh2.5 million in compensation.

Three Court of Appeal Judges Joel Ngugi, Patrick Kiage and Francis Tuiyott agreed that Bungoma County government, Bungoma County Referral Hospital should pay her for the indignity she suffered.

The Judges were of the view that hospitals should ensure that women give birth with respect and dignity by having policies and best practices in place.

“Health systems, such as the appellants’, must be held accountable for the mistreatment of women during childbirth, and for failure to effectively prevent and respond to these harmful practices.”

“Beyond providing resources to ensure quality, accessible maternal health care, the appellants were obligated to provide clear policies to ensure dignified, respectful health care throughout pregnancy and childbirth for all women,” they ruled.

On August 8, 2013, an expectant Ongwen went to Bungoma District Hospital with the hope of holding a bundle of joy.

At the back of her mind, she knew that the June 1, 2013 directive by then President Mwai Kibaki for free maternity care services would make her journey to motherhood easy.

At the hospital, she told the court that she was seen by one Dr Wekesa Kubasu who advised that she needed to undergo induced labour as she was overdue.

Unfortunately, the hospital did not have enough beds, thus she shared her bed with another patient.

Ongwen told judges that nurses informed her that at the onset of labour pains, she would have to walk from the labour ward to the delivery room. The nurse injected her with the drug and left.

She ended up giving birth on the floor, in a corridor between the labour ward and the delivery room.

Ongwen told the court that she had to buy the labour-inducing drug and the cotton wool despite the promise by the president that maternity care would be free.

However, the county and the hospital denied the claim.

At the same time, Ongwen narrated that after her labour was induced, there was no nurse to check her progress, and her pleas fell on deaf ears.

She narrated that when a nurse finally showed up, she concluded that she was not due for delivery without conducting physical examination.

Ongwen asserted that she gave birth on the floor as she found three beds already occupied in the delivery room by other women.

She recounted that as she tried to walk back to the labour ward, the intense pain knocked her out and the baby was born on the floor.

Upon gaining consciousness, Ongwen she heard verbal insults from two nurses who were not happy that she gave birth on the floor.

The two nurses ordered that she carries her placenta to the delivery room where it would be expelled.

Kenya Television Network (KTN) told her story from shocking videos captured by another woman who had also gone to the hospital for delivery.

The county and the hospital admitted that Ongwen gave birth on the floor. However, they contested her version of what transpired.

They asserted that she was properly attended to, was not abused or insulted and treated with respect.

At the High Court, Justice Abida Aroni ruled in Ongwen’s favour. She found that the mother was treated in an inhumane and disdainful manner.

Aggrieved, the county and the hospital moved to the Court of Appeal. Here, they argued that the two nurses who were implicated were investigated by the Nursing Council of Kenya and were cleared.

They had been initially interdicted.

According to the county, the story ran by the KTN was meant to paint it and the hospital in bad light.

After the story aired, the two claimed that the woman wrote a statement indicating that she had no complaint against the hospital.

On the other hand, Ongwen admitted signing the statement. However, she explained that after she regained her memory, she went back to the hospital but no one offered an apology.

Ongwen and The Standard Group journalist Joseph Wanyonyi were the star witnesses in the case.

Wanyonyi explained how he obtained the clip and stored the same for editing. Justice Ngugi, Kiage and Tuiyott dismissed the county’s argument that the clips should not have been used as evidence in the first place.

At the same time, the hospital claimed that the video showed empty beds while Ongwen said that she had to share one as they were already fully occupied.

However, the three judges ruled that the hospital had admitted that it was overstretched and the patients shared beds.

It also argued that the floor was hygienic and clean. However, Judges were of the view that there was no valid reason offered on why she had to give birth on the floor in the first place.

Justices Ngugi, Kiage and Tuiyott said that Ongwen was a poster woman of government employees’ high-handedness while offering services to Kenyans.

The judges said that Bungoma is a classic case of pompous workers who take workplaces as their territory.

In a concurring judgment, Justice Kiage said that Bungoma has earned a place in the halls of shame.

They found that Ongwen was denied the right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, including her sexual and reproductive health.

“No mother in labour, new or repeat, should ever have to be insulted and assaulted by maternity nurses. Nor should she have to give birth unassisted on the floor of a hospital no matter how stretched the labour force, and be made to carry the placenta in her hands as some form of punishment,” said Justice Kiage.

The Judge declared that the unassisted birth, being made to carry a placenta, was in essence meant to punish the new mother. He said that Ongwen’s case was just a part of many women who were abused, and humiliated while giving birth. It was not a black swan.

The three judges upheld the Sh 2.5 million award by the High Court. At the same time, they condemned the county to shoulder the cost of the case.

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