Faida Mwenge’s baby boy is nearly 3 months old but she and her son are still not allowed to leave the hospital — not until their bill is paid. The 20-year-old in eastern Congo has been detained since giving birth via an emergency cesarean section and owes hospital authorities $190 before she and little Jospin will be released.
Mwenge is one of hundreds of thousands of people estimated to be illegally detained every year by hospitals in poor countries worldwide, according to a new study attempting to quantify the problem, which experts describe as a major violation of human rights. The Associated Press found about a dozen other people detained at the same hospital because they are unable to settle their bills.
In the report released by British think tank Chatham House on Wednesday, experts reviewed nine studies on the issue and combed through media articles documenting cases of patients detained in 14 countries from Latin America to sub-Saharan Africa. The researchers found more than 950 cases between 2003 and 2017, including a report of about 400 patients held in a single hospital in Kenya in 2009.
The researchers said based on that limited data, the rate of detentions reported and the size of the countries where such reports originated, it was likely that hundreds of thousands more people faced the same fate.
“It appears to be very systemic and a big problem in countries where the charging of user fees is rampant and unregulated,” said Robert Yates of Chatham House, the study’s lead author. “Even though all countries would say these practices are illegal, the law is not being enforced and health facilities are just breaking the law and essentially holding people hostage until their families pay their bills.”
Yates and colleagues found the problem affected a disproportionate number of women like Mwenge, who suffered unexpected complications in childbirth.
Yates said hospitals across Africa often have a devoted wing that resembles a prison more than a hospital, staffed by security guards, to house people unable to pay their bills. Patients are deprived of treatment and frequently held in unsanitary and even abusive situations. He cited instances of a Nigerian woman who was chained to a urinal pipe and women in Kenya who said they had been pressured into having sex with hospital staff in exchange for cash to pay their bills.
Dr. Pierrot Kabemba, chief medical officer for the Beni region where Mwenge is detained, said it is common for patients…