Kenyan High Court: Maternity Hospital Illegally Imprisoned Women, Violated Human Rights

Court orders Ministry of Health to address discrimination in public hospitals and award compensation to women who were unlawfully detained

(PRESS RELEASE) The High Court of Kenya has ordered the Ministry of Health to end the discrimination and abuse experienced by women in public maternity hospitals, and provide financial compensation for Margaret and Maimuna, two women who were illegally detained at Pumwani Maternity Hospital for their inability to pay their hospital fees and were subjected to physical, mental, and verbal abuse.

In the decision, the High Court notes the two women were unlawfully detained and suffered numerous human rights violations, including their right to liberty and dignity. The ruling also acknowledges that they were discriminated against on the basis of their socioeconomic status and gender. The court has ordered the Nairobi County government to pay reparations to both women and all legal fees.

The Center for Reproductive Rights filed this case in December 2012 to hold the Ministry of Health accountable for allowing rampant detention and abuse of women in health care settings.  Despite a mandate from President Uhuru Kenyatta calling for free and universal maternal health services in June 2013, access to quality health care is still a challenge that the Ministry of Health has failed to address.

Said Evelyne Opondo, regional director for Africa at the Center for Reproductive Rights:

“No pregnant woman should ever fear that she will be detained for seeking basic maternal health care, regardless of her economic situation.

“Denying essential maternal care and illegally detaining those who seek but cannot afford it is a human rights violation that is especially harmful to women living under harsh economic circumstances.

“We commend the High Court for delivering long overdue justice to two women who suffered egregious abuse at Pumwani Hospital. But there is far more work to be done to ensure no other woman suffers such cruel treatment.

“It’s time the national and county governments immediately improve the oversight of Kenyan hospitals and ensure all women get the quality maternal health care that President Kenyatta has promised.”

In December 2012, the Center for Reproductive Rights filed its first maternal health care case before the constitutional division of the High Court of Kenya on behalf of two women, Margaret and Maimuna, who were detained for their inability to pay maternity fees and mistreated at Pumwani Hospital. The case held the hospital, as well as the Attorney General, Minister for Local Government, City Council of Nairobi and Minister for Medical Services, accountable for the human rights violations these women endured.

During her first of two deliveries at Pumwani Hospital, Margaret was illegally detained for 12 days because she was unable to pay her hospital fees. After she finally left the hospital, she was forced to return days later because of stomach pains, and doctors operated to remove the scissors that were left in her stomach post-caesarian. In connection with a subsequent pregnancy, Margaret returned to Pumwani Hospital to deliver. However, she ended up with a ruptured bladder because the medical staff left her unattended and bleeding on a bench for more than two hours before performing a caesarian. Additionally, she was again detained at the hospital – this time for 6 days.

Maimuna was detained for 20 days at Pumwani Hospital after delivery. With no beds available, she was forced to sleep on a cold floor and later caught pneumonia in the hospital. Adding insult to injury, the health of one of her children deteriorated because no one was able to look after the children full time during Maimuna’s detention.

In addition to filing the case against the Pumwani Hospital, the Center for Reproductive Rights has also brought the case of Josephine Majani, who was physically and verbally abused and repeatedly denied quality maternal care at Bungoma District Hospital. The case is still pending in the High Court.

Roughly 8,000 Kenyan women die from pregnancy-related complications each year. Poor maternal health services are common in Kenya due to a number of factors, including lack of supplies and equipment, inadequate training and supervision of health care workers, negligence, and unethical practices. Pumwani Hospital is just one of many hospitals in Kenya that are ill-equipped to provide women with free maternal services and as a result deny them quality health care—sometimes subjecting them to severe abuse.

The Center for Reproductive Rights has worked in Africa for more than a decade advancing women’s access to reproductive health care through law and policy reform. In 2007, the Center and the Federation of Women Lawyers-Kenya released the report Failure to Deliver: Violations of Women's Human Rights in Kenyan Health Facilities, documenting how Kenya’s health care sector suffers from systemic and widespread problems that deny women quality reproductive health care and violate their human rights.

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