NAIROBI (TrustLaw) – Two women sued the Kenyan government on Friday for illegally detaining them in hospital for not paying their bills – a long-standing practice in Kenya despite a government policy of waiving the charges for poor patients.
The petitioners argue that government-owned Pumwani Maternity Hospital – the largest facility in East Africa – subjected them to inhuman and degrading treatment and violated their rights to dignity, health and liberty.
Women who cannot pay have been detained in Kenyan government-run hospitals for as long as nine months, while their bills increase daily, they are denied medical care and are often confined in small, crowded and insanitary rooms.
“It’s better to give birth at home and die than go to Pumwani because of the torture and insults there,” said 35-year-old Margaret Anyoso, one of the petitioners, who has been detained at Pumwani twice.
The first time, Anyoso was held for 12 days after giving birth. She soon returned after complaining of stomach pains. A pair of scissors had accidentally been left in her stomach during her caesarean.
The second time, in 2010, a local clinic referred her to Pumwani for another caesarean because her baby was in a breech position. Her bladder ruptured because medical staff left her unattended and bleeding on a bench for over two hours because she did not have the 3,600 shilling ($42) deposit required. After giving birth, she was detained again.
VIOLATION OF WOMEN’S RIGHTS
Over the last six years, the Kenya Network of Grassroots Organisations has used mass protests to secure the release of some 800 women from detention in hospitals, the majority from Pumwani. There have also been numerous fundraisers by celebrities, politicians and the media to free detained mothers.
While doing her research, Judith Okal, the lead lawyer in the case brought by the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), met women who had been held for as long as nine months.
“Illegally detaining women in health care facilities because they are unable to pay their medical fees is an egregious violation of women’s fundamental rights to health and freedom,” said Nancy Northup, president of CRR.
“Providing women with affordable, accessible, and safe health services is a key obligation of the government of Kenya, and the Center is filing this case so that all women—no matter their socioeconomic status—are able to receive the necessary health care they deserve without fear of being imprisoned.”
Poor women from Nairobi slums prefer to give birth at local clinics, where it costs as little as 20 shillings ($0.20) to deliver. But they are sent to government hospitals – where they often cannot afford the fees – if they require surgery.
When the women are unable to settle their bills, they are held in a small room. Guards are posted nearby to prevent them from leaving. Each day they are detained, their hospital bill increases by 400 shillings ($5).
The first time Anyoso was detained, at the age of 15, she was held in a room with just four beds and 26 women. The mothers put their babies to sleep in the beds while they slept on the floor. She wrapped her baby in a T-shirt while she wore the same dirty, blood-stained clothes.
The hospital staff verbally abused them. “They told me: ‘You are stupid. You give birth without planning. You are coming here to give us problems,’” Anyoso said.
They did not know that Anyoso was pregnant because she had been taken hostage by a man who raped her repeatedly. “I wanted to kill myself and my baby but I couldn’t,” she said. “Women cried. They were tortured to the point that two even left their babies and ran away.”
DENIED MEDICAL CARE
Detained women are also denied medical care.
The second petitioner, Maimouna Awuor, 44, was referred to Pumwani by her local clinic in 2010. After giving birth, she was detained for three weeks until a friend persuaded the mayor of Nairobi to pay the hospital 12,000 shillings ($140) to release her.
She slept on a cold floor next to a flooding toilet with one bed sheet and a thin blanket.
There were 60 other women held with her. The most traumatised were three women whose babies had died, yet they were being held alongside other mothers with healthy newborns.
One of these grieving women had been detained for two months without receiving any visitors. The wound from her caesarean became infected.
“She started to cry that she was feeling pain. When she went and told the doctor, he said there was nothing he could do for her,” Awuor said.
One day, the woman fainted and the other patients carried her to a doctor. She had to be taken to another hospital for an operation.
Awuor and Anyoso are suing the government for compensation. They also hope that their case will force the government to end illegal detentions.
“We are trying to help our daughters so they don’t face the same problem,” said Anyoso. “They should treat people who are going there like Kenyans, not like animals.”