Shame of newborns detained in Kenyan hospitals

Esther Nyambura, 29, who delivered baby on August 29,, 2010 at the Nyeri Provincial General Hospital was still at the hospital on Thursday. Her bill escalated from Sh2,000 to Sh10,000. Photo/ JOSEPH KANYI

An alarming number of Kenya’s newborn children are spending their first weeks on earth as virtual prisoners in our maternities because their mothers are too poor to pay for their delivery.

A nationwide survey by the Saturday Nation this week found dozens of mothers who had been detained for months in poor conditions with their babies — in one case because the payment for the delivery bill fell short by Sh500.

In all the major hospitals visited, detained mothers were confined to the farthest corner and may not leave the wards even to bask in the sun. At Pumwani, Nairobi’s largest maternity hospital, two mothers are forced to share one bed with their infants, even when there are vacant beds available, according to a human rights group which monitors the detentions.

Additionally, as “debtors” to the government hospitals, they are served meals after everyone else, meaning that their lunch is served at 3pm. More traumatic are mothers held for weeks for bills arising from still births. This week alone, there were six such cases at Pumwani.

Contacted on Friday, the Director of Medical Services, Dr Francis Kimani, said the detaining new mothers for non-payment of bills was not a policy of his ministry. He said it was up to respective hospitals superintendents to waive bills for poor patients.

“As far as we are concerned nobody should be detained, whether they have money or not. We have an elaborate waiver system. All they (medical superintendents) have to do is check the backgrounds of the patients to see if they can pay.”

The Kenya Network of Grassroots Organisations (KENGO), a human rights group that monitors the detentions, has accused hospital suprintendents of sleeping on the job.

“They have social workers who can check on the background of these mothers to confirm if they can pay or not,” said Ms Wangui Mbatia, the excutive director of KENGO. By KENGO’s accounts some of the mothers detained at Pumwani had been there for two months, more than enough time for background checks.

The National Nurses Assocition (NNAK) has also voiced concern over the detentions, which it describes as a violation of fundamental human rights. NNAK chairman Luke Kodambo said it was up to the government of the day to enforce patient’s rights to treatment in order to end hospital detentions.

“It is up to the politicians to ensure that fundamental rights like the right to healthcare are implemented so that we do not have patients detained in hospitals. It is not a crime to be poor,” Mr Kodambo said in a speech at the Nurse of the Year Awards ceremony in Nairobi this week.

The Pumwani Maternity Hospital superintendent, Dr Fridah Govedi, was out of office yesterday and hospital authorities said only she could comment on the issue. Calls to her number went unanswered.

At the Nyeri Provincial General Hospital, the superintendent Dr Juma Mwangi denied any mother had been detained in the hospital against their wish or been denied food even though mothers confined to one corner of the facility described the poor conditions in which they were forced to live long after delivering.


At Cubicle 4 of the maternity ward in the hospital, 21-year-old single mother Esther Waithera longs to go home. She had come to deliver her second born son Bradan Mwangi at 8pm August 22 and was through with the normal delivery the next day at 8am.

While she had no problem with labour which she says was not a prolonged one, the vegetable hawker says her pain started when she was slapped with a Sh2,050 bill that she could not raise. Sitting lonely on her well made bed during the evening visiting hour, Ms Waithera cuts a sad face of defiance.

“I didn’t have the money and I don’t have it even now. All I earn is Sh200 from hawking the vegetables and all that is taken up by my domestic needs including taking care of my other child who is five years old.”

At the Kakamega General Hospital, the Saturday Nation encountered Josephine Wasike, who developed complications while in labour and was admitted to the hospital for treatment.

The mother of eight from Kakoi village in Kakamega North district delivered her baby boy on August 22 but has been unable to raise Sh15,450 to settle her bill. Looking frail, Ms Wasike said relatives had made all efforts to raise the money but were unsuccessful.


“I have recovered fully and need to rejoin my children and other family members but cannot raise the money to settle the bill,” said Ms Wasike. But a spokesperson was at pains to point out that nine patients had received fee waivers last month.

At the Kisumu District Hospital maternity ward, 28-year-old Rose Akoth breastfeeds her six day old son, uncertainty written all over her face bsix days after delivery.

Rose was widowed in April, when she was three months pregnant leaving her the only breadwinner for her other six children.

“I want to go back to my children,” said a distraught Rose. She has not paid any of her bills since she was admitted seven days ago which now stands at Sh 3,400.

Reported by Muchiri Karanja in Nairobi, Benson Amadala in Kakamega, Wainaina Ndungu in Nyeri and Paul Ogemba in Kisumu