alexa Women who kill their children: Murder or a case of punishing the sick? - Daily Nation

Women who kill their children: Murder or a case of punishing the sick?

Tuesday September 11 2018

Police officers exhume body

Police officers and members of the public exhume the body of a 10-month-old baby at Gathumbi Village in Othaya, Nyeri County following a court order. The baby’s mother was charged with the murder. The law has not been friendly to people with mental disorders, including women. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Scene of Crime — Korogocho slum in Nairobi. A mob pulls a woman to the ground as women scream. The mood is a cocktail of frenzy, rage, fear, pity and disgust.

Amid the cacophony, the woman curls her lips derisively as police vehicles and ambulance sirens wail in the rush through the dusty slum shanties.

Soon, the police arrive and disperse the crowd. The woman, now with a flattened nose and blanched cheeks, stares at the angry mob out to finish her off for what she did — murdering three children, one of them her own.

As police string a barricade tape across the entrance to her shanty, to take the children on their last outing, the woman lifts her left hand, reaches out to the collar of her pink chiffon blouse and wipes her nose as it drips, with her heart dancing to the pair of breasts producing milk wastefully.


Gradually, random groups form to discuss the incident, each group with its own version of the event. The common narrative from the witnesses who accept to record statements with the police is that the 23-year-old woman had killed her two-week-old son by slitting his throat before heading to her best friend’s house and killing her two children, one aged four years and the other one aged only 10 days.


She is days later arraigned in court and charged with two counts of murder and one count of infanticide.

Before the dust of astonishment had settled, another single mother in Uhuru Estate, Nairobi, slit the throats of her one-month-old twins with a kitchen knife. Neighbours were quick to say that the woman, who was staying with her aunt since her delivery day, had been showing signs of depression.

On March 10, police in Voi arrested Esther Wanjala, 27, after she allegedly killed her baby in Dambi, Sagalla after she had a quarrel with her husband.


The list of mothers who have killed their own children is endless. The Penal Code refers to the killing of a child below 12 months by its own mother as infanticide. Some women have been lynched for slaying their own children.

Under section 210 of the Penal Code, infanticide is treated as manslaughter, which section 202 states: “Any person who by an unlawful act or omission causes the death of another person is guilty of the felony termed as manslaughter.”

The punishment for infanticide is the same as that of manslaughter, which attracts a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Some courts have been lenient on women charged with infanticide, sentencing them to shorter terms because the crime has been linked to post-partum depression (PPD), a mental condition medics believe results from a complex mix of hormonal, physical, emotional, and behavioural changes that happen to a woman after giving birth.


In one such case, a mother, Mwajuma Mwambezi, was convicted and sentenced to three years imprisonment for infanticide after she was found guilty of killing her child by dumping it at a shamba in Batani Asili Village, Ruruma Location in Kilifi County on December, 14, 2013.

The child was heard crying by members of public, who rushed it to Rabai Health Centre where it died.

In a case involving Beatrice Wambui Kariuki, who was charged with causing the death of her son by drowning him a bucket of water at Muthurwa Estate, Nairobi, and who was sentenced to 10 years in prison, the court of appeal commuted her sentence to the to the term she had already served and set her free.

The Judge, S. Makhandia, said in the judgment delivered on September 21, 2005: “Since the Appellant has been in custody from November 18, 2003, it is my view that he imprisonment term already served by the Appellant is sufficient punishment.”

Some counsel have downgraded similar charges from second-degree murder to infanticide.


In a case involving an appellant referred to by the court as PAO, and who had initially been sentenced to seven years, the court released her on May 19, 2016, after the appellant judge converted the charges to infanticide. She had earlier been sentenced for the offence of killing an unborn child in Kadeke “A” Village in Nasewa Location, Busia County on December, 5, 2014.

“I agree with the Appellant that the facts do not disclose the offence of killing an unborn child, and that the appropriate charge should have been that of infanticide. This is for the reason that the general state of health and mind of women who kill their children during or shortly after birth, may be such that it negates the degree of intention and wilfulness that is required with other forms of destruction of life, and which fact is recognised in the offence of infanticide,” the Judge said.

The judge recognised that an essential element of the offence is that the mind of the accused person was, at the time of committing the offence, “disturbed by reason of her not having fully recovered from the effect of giving birth to the child or by reason of the effect of lactation consequent upon the birth of the child.”


Justice Francis Tuiyott, in his ruling, said where a woman is suspected of infanticide, she should, as a matter of course, be subjected to a psychiatric assessment to establish her state of mind at the time of commission of the offence.

Courts have, however, been careful not to provide a basis for an easy way out for murdering mothers, though, as in some cases women plead post-partum depression as a defence. When psychosis is not found, the charges pressed are more severe.

Doctors across the globe generally agree that there exists a major connection between infanticide and post-partum psychosis — which results from severe post-partum depression, begging the question as to whether the law has been punishing the sick.

The Psychiatric Disability Organisation (CDO) estimates that 17 per cent of pregnant women suffer post-partum depression, one per cent of whom will have psychosis and may go to an extent of committing suicide and, commonly, infanticide. The numbers, however, could be higher as many cases go unreported, and most women heal on their own.


CDO-Kenya chief executive Iregi Mwenja says the law has not been friendly to people with mental disorders, including women.

“When a woman kills her own child, she is not released. She is taken to a psychiatric jail at Mathari Hospital, which is worse than any other jail. By the time you go for prosecution, you may have healed, because this condition is temporary. Problem is, they get depressed again and the cycle continues,” Mr Mwenja says.

He says PPD has not been given the attention it deserves and post-natal clinics do not assess the mental health of women.

“PPD is more prevalent in women than HIV and all these other conditions they check for and accord attention. But the health system does not prioritise it,” he said, adding that several myths have been associated with psychosis.

Post-partum disorders, he says, range from mild, fleeting anxiety and depression to hormonally-induced psychosis. The most common form of post-partum mental health ailment is mild post-partum depression, commonly known as the "baby blues."


The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) defines PPD is a form of major depression that has its onset within four weeks after delivery.

In 1948, Canada adopted a law on infanticide that guides on charging mothers who murder their own children, introducing it as an alternative charge with softer sentencing. Under the law, the maximum sentence for infanticide is five years, but no conviction in Canada has resulted in a jail term longer than one year.

Like Kenya, Canada spells out the rule that the child must have been less than 12 months old for the offence to be referred to as infanticide.

Unlike in Kenya, though, all mothers who take the lives of their children must be subjected to mental health check-up to establish whether they suffer from some form of psychosis brought on by childbirth.

In Britain, the Infanticide Acts of 1922 and 1938 redefined such deaths as manslaughter, just like in Kenya. Imprisonment for these kinds of killings in Britain is extremely rare, though.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that worldwide, 10 per cent of pregnant women and 13 per cent of women who have just given birth experience a mental disorder, primarily depression. WHO says that in developing countries, the numbers could be as high as 19.8 per cent.


“In severe cases, mothers’ suffering might be so severe that they may even commit suicide. In addition, the affected mothers cannot function properly. As a result, the children’s growth and development may be negatively affected as well,” WHO states.

The American Library of Medicine estimates that two women out of every 1,000 suffer PPD. Kenya does not have a definite database on PPD or infanticide.

Clara Okoth, who suffered this condition and killed her seven-month-old baby by strangulation, says she cannot really tell what triggered the action, but she remembers she had hallucinations, delusions, paranoia and was extremely irritable.

Ms Okoth, who is two months shy of completing her four-year sentence, says on the day she committed the crime in Nakuru, she had been feeling sick and just wanted to sleep, but her baby kept crying. Her husband, who works in Nairobi, had never visited to see the baby since she was born.

 “I have undergone treatment, but I have had several episodes of depression. I miss my child. I regret everything. My husband, my family and the friends I had have all abandoned me. They say I am mad. I fear having another child,” she tearfully narrated.


Clinical psychologist and mental health professional Lincoln Khasakhala attributes cases of post-partum depression to many factors facing mothers, among them social problems, finances, lack of support from partners and the society.

 “Most of the cases present themselves in mothers being withdrawn, sadness instead of joy of having a newborn, fear of the baby rather than a sense of responsibility, hallucinations, shame, guilt and several others,” Dr Khasakhala said.

Other features of depression include being teary, hopeless, doubting in ability to care for the child, lack of interest in the baby, fatigue and absent mindedness.

“Most of the mothers we examine get into depression because of lack of support from their spouses. Violence and neglect by intimate partners, according to me, is a big contributor to this kind of depression,” Dr Khasakhala said.