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Study Shows Low-Income Women in Kenya Get Substandard Treatment


In Kenya, low-income women who give birth in public facilities are often verbally abused. They receive inferior medical care, frequently in unsanitary conditions, and they can even be detained for not paying their fees. These and other abuses were detailed in a late 2007 study of public maternity wards across the country. Cathy Majtenyi reports for VOA from Nairobi.

Grace Wangari will never forget her nightmare experience when she gave birth in a public hospital three years ago. She was traumatized by what she calls the staff's abrupt manner when she was informed that her baby had died. She says she was not allowed to see the body.

It only got worse. Wangari was penniless. She could not afford the Nairobi hospital's bill. She says she was detained, along with others in the same situation.

"I stayed in the ward for two months after giving birth,” Wangari said. “Then, they moved us to the nursing room, where we stayed for four months. We had no money to get out, so they decided to release us."

Theresia Wambui's baby also died after she gave birth. She says the nurses ignored her cries for help during a difficult labor.

"Even when we screamed for help, the nurses ignored us and then told us, 'when you were with your boyfriend, you were not complaining, you were happy,'” Wambui said. “So that's your problem.'"

Many low-income women apparently get similar treatment when they deliver babies in public facilities across the country.

Last year, the Federation of Women Lawyers - Kenya co-authored a study on human rights violations in Kenya's public maternity wards.

"Women are subjected to very serious human rights abuses in public hospitals - but also in some private hospitals - when they go to deliver,” said Jane Onyango, the group's executive director. “This ranges from the quality of care that they receive: the lack of supplies, the abuses, the fact that women are kept on the queue after delivery before they are stitched. Others are denied food if they cannot pay for the services."

Public maternity facilities are poorly equipped and maintained, and are often unclean.

"You find soiled linen, women sharing beds, others sleeping on the floors, babies not bathed after delivery, and generally just chaos," Onyango said.

The report details examples of neglect and medical malpractice. Gaudenciah Wanjiru also gave birth in a public hospital in Nairobi. She says a doctor told her that the more than 12-hour delay in doing a caesarian section is the reason one of her twins died.

"When the doctor came he explained to me that my baby had died because I was mistreated in the labor ward,” Wanjiru said. “No one had come to help me, and the baby had gotten tired."

Nairobi's Pumwani Maternity Hospital is among the worst facilities cited in the report. It is the largest maternity hospital in east and central Africa. Wanjiru, Wambui and Wangari all delivered there.

Gynecologist, Dr. Charles Wanyonyi is medical superintendent of Pumwani Maternity Hospital. He says low-income patients can get their fees waived. He says some women are kept in the facility so they can better care for their newborns.

"The cases of stay, there are reasons: too young; waiting for the babies [to grow], they express milk. If we release them, they will not come back for their babies," Dr. Wanyonyi said.

Regarding the staff's alleged abuse, Dr. Wanyonyi says there may have been issues in the past, but he says there is no abuse now. He says health care is low priority in the government's budget, and maternity is at the bottom of the barrel.

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