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President Obama's Message to the People of Kenya

Ripping patients' rights

Date Posted : Tuesday, 19 Mar 2013

By Florence Dzame, Internews in Kenya.

Making health information available to individuals has many benefits. For one thing information allows people to take responsibility of their own lives.

But how many of us ask their doctors questions when they do not understand a diagnosis or prescribed treatment?

This question crossed my mind repeatedly as I investigated cases of women who were forcefully sterilized because they are HIV positive. In this day and age, when there is bountiful evidence that a woman living with HIV can deliver an HIV negative baby through prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV services, my interaction with the women was an eye opener. Too many Kenyans do not have accurate family planning information.

Hammering a nail on the wall to pin a calendar, Lillian raises her head to wipe sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. Once done she steps down from the arm chair and gazes at her handiwork proudly.                                             

 “Family planning for women,” she reads the on the calendar, slowly moving her lips. She sits down to talk to me.

“I was sterilized when I was 20 years old,” she tells me. Her face is stern. The pitch of her voice rises steadily as she talks.

“I tested positive for HIV when I was pregnant with my second child and the nurse told me that if I didn’t stop giving birth they will not allow me to deliver in that hospital.”

The nurse offered her a lucrative maternity package; free formula milk for six months and a caesarean delivery for only Sh300. All she had to do was agree to a tubal ligation.

She went home and discussed the matter with her husband and they agreed to the tubal ligation, a procedure where fallopian tubes are tied or cut to prevent the egg from reaching the uterus for fertilization. All along Lillian thought that the surgery was a temporary family planning method. After some years, she tried to get pregnant but was unable to.  She went back to the clinic where the surgery was done and was told that she will never have children again.

The World Health Organization lists timely and accurate information as part of the six building blocks of an efficient health system. Others include leadership and governance, service delivery, medical products, financing and human resource.

Lillian is one of 40 women who say they were sterilized without their consent.  A report by the African Gender and Media Initiative, GEM called Robbed of Choice found that in Western Kenya and Nairobi women who were HIV positive were either offered incentives like free medical services and formula or were forcefully sterilized. Over half of those cases happened in government hospitals.

“In some of the cases the women say the doctor spoke to them in English and so they didn’t know what they were agreeing to,” says Njoki Otieno, Programs Officer GEM.

Who is to blame?

The government says that there has never been a policy to sterilize HIV positive women.

“We cannot verify that these cases happened,” said Dr. Peter Cheroitich, Head of HIV prevention at the National AIDS and STD Control Programme.  “If they happened then it was the indiscretion of individual doctors and not a government policy.”

The women will be going to court to seek compensation from the Government. They complain that the sterilization has cost them their families since most were abandoned by their husbands because they could not have more children. They also say they experience back aches and inability to control urine and so they cannot work.

Listen to the women in their own words.