News / Africa

Women Detained at Kenyan Maternity Hospital Demand Justice

Children play on the way home after school in Pumwani slums near Kenya's capital Nairobi, seen in the background, September 14, 2006.
Children play on the way home after school in Pumwani slums near Kenya's capital Nairobi, seen in the background, September 14, 2006.
Gabe Joselow
The Center for Reproductive Rights in Kenya has filed a case against the government on behalf of two women who were detained at a maternity hospital for weeks after not being able to pay their medical bills. But the hospital says it cannot afford to treat patients for free.

Maimouna Awour went to the Pumwani maternity hospital in the Majengo neighborhood of Nairobi two years ago to deliver her fifth child.

After the birth, when she was ordered to be discharged, she found she did not have the money to pay the fees. She had only 1,000 shillings (about $12) when she needed 3,000 (nearly $35).

She was moved to a new ward along with other patients who could not pay their bills, and was detained for 20 days.

"They treated us like prisoners, it was as if they were bullying us, abusing us, telling us to go and look for money, no way out to look for money. You are there in prison sitting down, doing nothing," she said. "You can't do anything, you can't wash yourself, they can't treat you, you are just there sitting."

Awour eventually was released when a friend of hers convinced the former mayor of Nairobi, who was visiting the hospital, to help pay her fees, which by that time had amounted to 12,000 shillings ($140).

Awour is one of two women being represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights in a court case seeking compensation for psychological damages suffered by the women, as well as declarations from the government outlawing the detention of patients who cannot pay their bills.

Judy Okal, a litigator with the Center, says this practice goes against numerous clauses in the country's new constitution, including Article 43 which guarantees the right to health care.

"If you don't pay the deposit, you're left unattended for a lengthy period," Okal explained. "Then it means, obviously they were not able to get the highest attainable standard of health which is required under the constitution.”

Inside Pumwani hospital, about 10 women rested on beds in the back of a ward set aside for women who cannot pay their hospital bills.

Two women interviewed by VOA under the watch of hospital staff said that they were still receiving treatment while they waited for their relatives to come up with the money.

Dr. Lazarus Omandi, the medical superintendent at Pumwani, says the hospital has a process for helping women who say they cannot afford to pay their fees.

"We have a social worker who will look at genuinely poor mothers who cannot pay and the social worker will dig into your family background, up to where you stay, and if, for sure, you cannot pay, we waive your fee," he said. "But the process takes about a week.”

Omondi says the government-subsidized hospital ends up waiving fees for up to 20 women every month, with the help of well-wishers and donor organizations.

Maimouna Awour, who was detained for 20 days, says she only met with the social worker once, and that all she did was order her to find the money somehow.

Omondi says there are cases of women who try to scam the hospital by claiming to be destitute. He says every patient has a responsibility to pay something.

“If you cannot raise the total 4,000 shillings for a normal delivery, maybe you can pay 1,000 or 2,000, we'll appreciate that," Omondi said. "But we cannot allow you to go home for free until we can be sure that indeed, you do not have anything.”

Maimouna Awour says just because the hospital needs the money is no excuse to violate her rights. She says it is always the poor in Kenya who are abused the most. "Because there are many people suffering outside there, with no anything. If you are in poverty, they use you as their property," she asserted.

She says she hopes the court case will help other women who have had the same experience.

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