The joy of a mother is a story every woman gladly shares, but the pent-up pain of giving birth in public hospitals can be numbing.
Some victims have spoken of untold nightmares nurses and midwives inflict on pregnant women they supposed to treat with care and compassion as labour pains sting.
Just a smile, fair treatment and less pain is what Mercy Kanyenda wanted when staff at Mtwalo Health Centre referred her to Mzuzu Central Hospital for a Caesarean section.
However, the woman in labour pain suffered what she considers the shock of her life when a nurse told her unskilled guardian to operate on her.
This could be just a glimpse of the discord in public healthcare facilities where women referred from private hospitals sometimes end up delivering in corridors “because they are rich”.
Kanyenda harbours startling flashbacks of the birth of her second-born daughter on April 10 last year.
“I arrived at the hospital in March, but health workers only attended to me on April 13 2017,” said the rural woman in an exclusive interview on Wednesday.
“All this while I was in terrible labour pains. At times, I couldn’t even eat. My mother’s constant requests for help from hospital staff were met by impolite responses and a backlash.”
But Kanyenda’s agony reached an unprecedented low when a health worker offered her mother a kitchen knife to operate on her daughter who needed a C-section.
“This was our last attempt at getting the workers to help us. Their words and action left us speechless, helpless and traumatized,” she says.
Ironically, this is happening just when government and its partners have dialled up the push to ensure every woman gives birth in a clinic.
According to World Health Organisation (WHO), access to proper medical attention and hygienic conditions during delivery can reduce the risk of complications and infections that can kill the mother, baby, or both.
The 2015-16 Malawi Demographic Health Survey indicates nine in 10 babies born alive since 2010 were delivered by a skilled provider.
“Most of them [91 percent of live births] were delivered in a health facility,” the researchers report.
This represents a substantial rise from 56 percent in 2004 and 71 percent in 2010.
However, the cruelty and negligence faced by women at the hands of nurses and midwives could be the reason some remain at home to give birth in life-or-death situations.
Interestingly, Kanyenda’s mother, Pikistina Nkhoma, pressed on.
When a doctor passed by, she helplessly run after him in a desperate race to save her daughter from dying of treatable complications similar to those which marred her first pregnancy a decade earlier.
She recalls: “After examining my daughter, the good doctor wondered why the hospital kept her that long in a life-threatening condition. He prescribed forced labour which did not work out successfully. They rushed her to the operating theatre where her baby girl was born.”
Kanyenda’s experience lifts the lid on violations of patients’ rights in the country grappling with a high burden of maternal deaths.
In 2015, the country missed the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) target to slash maternal mortality rates from about 800 deaths in 100 000 live births in 2000 to about 155.
Assessments by the Ministry of Health show the figure rates hovered around 497 when MDGs expired and paved the way for Sustainable Development Goals three years ago.
But the harsh treatment women receive from some nurses and midwives eclipse good works of many health workers.
Some women complain of suffering beatings at Mapale Health Centre in Mzuzu and MCH.
Others say they were detained in these two facilities because they could not afford baby suits for their newborns.
At worst, pregnant women referred from private hospitals receive a discriminatory backlash.
“I was a guardian to my in-law who was referred to MCH from St John’s Mission Hospital. She got no attention for the mere reason that she came from a private facility. She delivered in the corridors, without any assistance,” explained another woman.
White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood volunteers encountered similar lamentations when they visited State-run health facilities in Mzuzu recently.
Its national coordinator Nancy Kamwendo says it is unfortunate that women are being tortured by health officials despite a government policy that requires no woman to give birth at home.
“However, some women are still delivering at home to avoid abuse,” she says.
Kamwendo’s organisation campaigns for quality and respectful maternal care for all.
When asked, MCH spokesperson Arnold Kayira says the hospital was not aware of the alleged abuses.
“It is unfortunate that we are learning this from the media. No one has complained about this either to the office of the hospital administrator or Ombudsman,” he explains.
Kayira encourages the women to report any abuse to “right officers” at the facility.
Similar cases happened at Phalombe Health Centre where Alinafe Msinje, 18, delivered her first-born son in a bathroom drain last month.
According to Malawi News Agency (Mana), health workers had twice denied the teen mother, from Traditional Authority Kaduya in the district, access to the labour ward. n