Act now to stop maternal health violations

Act now to stop maternal health violations

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Date: 18 January 2017 13:36

Last week, 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 getting medical attention.

While this woman’s story sparked national outrage, the mistreatment of pregnant women seeking maternal health care is a common occurrence throughout Kenya, which is only exacerbated by the current doctors’ strike.

This woman was denied medical attention at Pumwani Maternity Hospital, Nairobi, a facility that has been in the news previously for the mistreatment of women.

In 2012, two women, Margaret and Maimuna, were illegally detained at the hospital for their inability to pay their hospital bills. They were subjected to physical, mental and verbal abuse. 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 Nairobi County to compensate Margaret and Maimuna for the violation of their rights.

Margaret and Maimuna represent scores of women across the country, but most of them are never able to access justice for violations of their rights.

The Constitution states that every person has a right to the highest attainable standard of health, which includes reproductive health services. And even though President Uhuru 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 for inability to pay the bills.

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 striking doctors and give the health professionals the resources they need to provide quality medical services.

About 8,000 women die from pregnancy-related complications in Kenya each year. On paper, the government 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 government and Ministry of Health, in particular, 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 advanced 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 conducive working conditions to enable them execute their mandate.
Lastly, the government must fully implement favourable 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 by the government.

Ms Opondo is the regional director for Africa at the Centre for Reproductive Rights. Email: [email protected]

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