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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Arc of justice needs to bend towards maternal healthcare

A stream of tweets from 27-year-old new mother Mama Boo just went viral. The comments she generated under the hashtag #HospitalNegligenceKE were right on time. We globally celebrate Maternal Health Day, we must do more to keep mums and babies safe as well as keep adolescents free from premature parenthood.

Mama Boo’s tweets detail with agony her experience of giving birth in a private Nairobi hospital in January. Demands for hefty financial deposits before emergency treatment, absent or abusive doctors, further delays and untreated after surgery tears was her experience. Despite seeking service in the capital city, her experience is mirrored by countless stories by women from economically marginalised communities. For most, the major killers are health fraud, poverty, distance, harmful cultural practices and inadequate services and information in this order.

Most women die from complications during and after pregnancy and childbirth. The tragedies of babies and mothers dying at childbirth are mostly known, preventable and treatable. Two thirds of the deaths are as result of severe bleeding, infections, high blood pressure or unsafe abortions. We owe it to Mama Boo, countless other mothers and fathers to demand an end to the danger and indignity that accompanies childbirth.

Our experts tell us that the numbers of women and babies that die at childbirth in Kenya are dropping although very slowly. Kenya is one of five countries alongside Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda that could meet the under-5 Sustainable Development target by 2030 (25 deaths for every 1,000 births). If we do, it will be because of counties like Mandera, Isiolo, Makueni and Nairobi who are increasing public investment in health facilities, equipment and medicine. It will also be because National Health Insurance Fund coverage has expanded to cover teenagers.

Increased public awareness and demand for the enforcement of the Constitution (Article 43), Health Act and Patient Charter is critical. Under the Linda Mama programme, all women and girls have the right to be treated, especially in emergencies safely, respectfully in privacy and with dignity. Being more awoke of our rights, having the courage to speak out and where needed, sue for negligence of medical denial is how ordinary citizens will accelerate the trend towards safe pregnancies.

Those whose rights have been violated must seek justice from both the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board (KMPDB) and The Kenya Health Professions Oversight Authority when it is finally established. If these avenues fail, there is also the judiciary. We can also demand that all county governments publicly share and enforce procedures for the making and handling of complaints by aggrieved persons.

The challenges facing safe motherhood relates to another topical public conversation. Should the Sexual Offences Act be revised to drop the age of consent to sexual intercourse from 18 to 16 years? Three judges caused a whirlwind last week when they proposed this to stem large numbers of young men serving sentences for “consensual” sexual intercourse with minors. Their position is backed by evidence that adolescent girls and boys are already voluntarily engaged in sexual activity. Secondly, there are glaring inconsistencies between the laws criminalising teen sex and there is a need to openly provide contraceptives and other reproductive health services.

There are huge risks in overturning one of the biggest pillars of our gender related laws. Will it open the door to pedophiles, back-street abortions or ill-prepared teenage parents and reverse gains in the numbers of girls finishing secondary school?

All agree that the criminalisation and imprisonment of male teenagers is alarming. So too must be the prospect of children growing up with under-educated dads with felonies and single mums who also have had their schooling interrupted. Until we can answer these questions and safeguard against these probable futures, we had better not tamper with the age of majority.

The challenge of safe maternal health services and the debate on lowering the age of consent for sexual intercourse are interconnected. This week, Ivy Wangechi was killed by a male student who felt his advances had been scorned. The incident and the online debate that followed demonstrates that Kenyan is not yet a society that denies men, the crazy belief that they are personally entitled to the affection and bodies of women. How will we achieve this with adolescent girls if we can’t with adult women?

As we mark Maternal Health Day this week, we must place all our efforts behind women like Mama Boo and Ivy Wangechi.

May the arc of justice bend towards them both.

First published Saturday Standard, April 13 2019. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

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