Human Rights Issues in maternal health care in Kenya: Do Kenyan women enjoy the right to maternal health?

The findings of a recent Public Inquiry into violations of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) rights in Kenya highlight several factors which underlie the high and increasing rates of maternal mortality in Kenya. This inquiry undertaken by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) during 2011 had the overall aim to establish the extent and nature of violation of sexual and reproductive health (including maternal health) rights and to recommend appropriate redress measures.

‘The Public Inquiry Panel receiving evidence from a witness in Kitale’ 12-13 July 2011’

Source: knhcr.org

Maternal health’ refers to the health of women during pregnancy, childbirth and the postpartum period (usually up to 42 days). As such, the right to maternal health should encompass access to antenatal care services; delivery services, including delivery by caesarean section where necessary; essential newborn care services and postpartum care services especially during the first 48 hours of delivery. Provision of these services requires availability of trained service providers (midwives, nurses, doctors and clinical officers) at all times and the capacity of facilities to respond to emergency cases, adequate physical facilities, and adequate equipment and supplies including essential medicines and vaccines.

Improving maternal health is the fifth Millennium Development Goal (MDG5). It has two targets: 5.A: Reduce by three quarters between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality rate; and 5.B: Achieve, by 2015, universal access to reproductive health. The indicators to show attainment of these targets are as follows: 5A- Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) and Proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel; and 5B- Contraceptive prevalence rate (CPR); Adolescent birth rate; Antenatal care coverage; and Unmet need for family planning. Analysis of the latest available data on Target 5A shows that MMR in Kenya remains high and has not started showing any downward trend, nor has there been an increase in the proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel. In the case of Target 5B, on the other hand, it is encouraging to note the recent rising trend in CPR which, if sustained, may get close to the figure projected for 2015.

The factors behind the high and increasing levels of maternal mortality in Kenya fall in the following broad categories: widespread poverty; limited access to health care services; limited availability of skilled attendance at childbirth including inadequate referral systems; and high prevalence of negative socio-cultural practices such as early marriage and FGM. A key cross-cutting factor is inadequacy of funding to the health sector, and disproportionate allocation for reproductive health services within the health budget.

The right to maternal health care services is recognized or implied in several international, regional and national instruments, which many African governments including the Government of Kenya have ratified. Among these are: The Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966); The International Conference on Population Development Programme of Action (1994); The United Nations Millennium Development Goals (2000); The Maputo Plan of Action on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (2006); Campaign on Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa (CARMMA) (2009); The Constitution of Kenya, 2010 (Article 43 (a); The National Reproductive Health Policy 2007; and The Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act 2011.

In these, the State is obliged to fulfill SRH Rights ‘progressively’, depending on the resources available to them. The state is obliged to show that it is making ‘measurable progresses’ towards the full realization of the SRH Rights and to restrain from adopting ‘regressive measures’. At the same time, there are those rights for which the state is under obligation to effect immediately, for instance, the obligation to respect an individual’s freedom to decide freely if, when and how often to reproduce and the obligation to ensure freedom from discrimination and from degrading treatment.

The core obligations that are relevant to SRH Rights, which states are under obligation to fulfill immediately, include ensuring:

  • Access to health facilities, goods and services on a non-discriminatory basis, especially for vulnerable or marginalized groups;
  • Access to essential drugs, as defined under the WHO Action Programme on Essential Drugs
  • Equitable distribution of health facilities, goods and services including trained health personnel;
  • Availability of reproductive health services including maternal and child healthcare;

A human rights-based approach to reproductive health care recognizes that all human rights are universal, interrelated, indivisible, and interdependent and are inherent in all human beings. It acknowledges that sexual and reproductive rights cannot be realized without the realization of other broader human rights, for example, the right to information, privacy and confidentiality and education.

The status of maternal health rights is determined by the effectiveness maternal health care services at all levels, namely in terms of: accessibility, availability, quality, affordability and acceptability. From the Public Inquiry findings the following conclusions can be made:

  • The physical accessibility of delivery services is an important issue of concern especially in the arid and semi-arid zones where significant percentages of the population must travel long distances to access health facilities.
  • Many facilities lack transportation support for maternity emergencies. There was evidence that most facilities in rural areas were ill equipped to handle emergency deliveries and women who needed C-sections in small facilities often died or lost their babies because they could not be transferred to a higher level in good time.
  • Lack of safe abortion services in Kenya has resulted in those seeking termination of pregnancy to resort to crude and unsafe methods, often with fatal consequences. There is a lack of awareness regarding provisions in the Constitution of Kenya 2010 (Article 26(4)) among healthcare providers and the general public.
  • The quality of maternal health services countrywide remains an issue of serious concern. Some of the key quality issues that have been highlighted are: lack of basic supplies such as cotton wool, pads, gloves, syringes, surgical blades, linen to wrap babies, anaesthesia, disinfectants, medicines, bed sheets, and blankets; dirty and unhygienic conditions; women forced to share beds or sleep on the floor; and the lack of food and hot water for bathing, etc. Overall, the factors that undermine the quality of maternal health services in Kenya were summarized as: (a) Lack of supplies and equipment; (b) Understaffing and lack of training and supervision; (c) Negligence and unethical practices by health providers; and (d) Weak Referral System.
  • Non-affordability of services is a serious impediment to accessing maternal health care throughout the country. Witnesses testified that the high cost of hospital delivery, especially the fees charged at level 4 and 5 facilities, was a key hindrance to accessing skilled maternal health services.
  • Acceptability of maternal health services- evidence from the Inquiry indicated that some communities did not utilize skilled delivery services because of cultural restrictions, mainly taboos regarding attendance by male nurses, which was prevalent among the Muslims in upper Eastern and North Eastern Kenya, as well as among the Sabaot of Western Kenya. These cultural preferences, together with the chronic shortage of skilled professionals in these areas, and the non-affordability of fees for services, come out as the main factors that perpetuate the demand for the Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs).

Based on its findings the Public Inquiry concluded that women in Kenya continue to die or suffer disability due to preventable causes. The Inquiry notes that the causes of these deaths prevail against the backdrop of the myriad international and regional human rights frameworks and commitments that Kenya is a party to and the national legal, policy and institutional frameworks that are aimed at enhancing maternal health. From the foregoing therefore, the Public Inquiry concluded that Kenya is still far from realizing the maternal health rights and has made a number of recommendations to government and other stakeholders that are essential in working towards the realization of maternal health rights in Kenya, and the achievement of MDG5 and Vision 2030 goal.

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Comments

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