CLS Alum's Advocacy for Women's Human Rights in Kenya

Kenya’s Minister of Public Health has waived maternity fees at public hospitals and the government is investigating abuses of women delivering at Kenya’s hospitals as the result of a powerful report co-written by Columbia Law School alumna Elisa Slattery '04, legal advisor to the Africa Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights based in New York. Published this summer, the report, “Failure to Deliver,” was prepared by the Center in conjunction with Kenya’s Federation of Women Lawyers.

Slattery discussed details of the report September 20 as the academic year’s first guest presenter in the human rights speaker series moderated by Peter J. Rosenblum, the Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein Associate Clinical Professor in Human Rights. The report summarizes findings from interviews with 120 Kenyan women about appalling maternity ward conditions, physical and emotional abuse and degradation experienced during labor and delivery.

Her organization and the Kenya Women Lawyers are pursuing legal recourse on behalf of one woman who claimed her genitalia were deliberately mutilated by the person who delivered her baby. It is unknown at this time whether that person was a doctor, as Slattery said that others with varied credentials—including other patients—often deliver babies in Kenyan hospitals because of a shortage of trained help.

The report also drew attention to the common practice of demanding full payment upfront from women about to deliver before providing them with medical services, or refusing to let them leave before they paid their bill. One woman, who lost her child shortly after delivery, reported that Nairobi’s Pumwani Maternity Hospital, where she gave birth, detained her until she paid up. The hospital is the largest and busiest maternity hospital in East and Central Africa, with 27,000 deliveries in 2005, about 80 percent of deliveries in Kenya’s health facilities.

“We found abuse and neglect before, during and after delivery,” said Slattery. “Women were cut with scissors, beaten, pinched and insulted. There are mainstream human rights issues here.” One of the women interviewed, she said, believed she contracted HIV when she delivered a child in 2002: The woman reported that a nurse used the same scissors on her that were used on a woman she had just treated.

“There was no procedure for handling patients’ complaints,” said Slattery, “so they had very little redress. Young people were particularly targeted during their first delivery, and there appeared to be discrimination against poor people.”

“Our report hit a nerve,” said Slattery, who adds that her group was concerned about possible backlash from healthcare professionals but is gratified to see that doctors are drafting guidelines with the Ministry of Health to prevent future abuse.

This experience is Slattery’s second working with Kenya’s Federation of Women Lawyers: As a fellow with the Millennium Foundation, she interned there, followed by a stint at the Center for Reproductive Rights, during her first year after graduation. She now works at the Center. CLS Human Rights Clinic students are assisting the Center on women’s rights issues in Kenya.