In the days when the long, hot summer turn to winter, many Emiratis finally shut off their air conditioning they have been running continuously since the March before and open the windows to let in some fresh air and save on electricity. It is also about the time that children start falling from open windows and balconies.
It happened again this past year, too. Sharjah, one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, saw four children plunge to their deaths in the space of two weeks in late November-early December. Two more followed in Abu Dhabi, one at the end of January 30 and again four days later.
The three-year-old girl who plunged to her death in January from a fifth floor apartment at Airport Road in Abu Dhabi had nearly met her fate four weeks earlier, when she was rescued by a policeman who noticed her leaning out of a window in her home. Adults are not immune from the problem either: Over the weekend, a 23-year-old Ethiopian cleaning woman also met her death after falling.
“Many people try saving money and don’t use air conditioning, starting in December or November,” Michal Grivna, who teaches in the UAE University’s department of community medicine, told The Media Line. “When there is cooler weather they tend to open the windows instead of using air conditioning. I myself stopped using air condition last week and I was opening the window.”
This time, however, at least two of the Emirates are doing something to address the phenomenon. Abu Dhabi’s Municipal Affairs Department announced March 13 that it is giving homeowners six months to meet new standards of safety. These include rules that windows and balconies must not allow openings in excess of 10 centimeters (four inches). Locks and protective measures must also be in place for windows and openings that are less than 1.5 meters above the apartment floor.
A week earlier, Sharjah issued similar instructions, including a requirement that building owners increase the balcony height to at least 1.2 meters instead of one meter and that windows should be child-proof so that without the aid of an adult they cannot be opened wide enough for a child to climb out. Sharjah promised inspector would crack down on violators, particular people who use their balances as storage areas.
Emiratis have heard more than enough chilling stories of deadly falls over the years. In September, a five-year-old who had been left home alone fell eight floors to the street close by his older sister. In shock, the mother, a 33-year-old Iranian, then returned to the apartment and jumped to her death in an apparent suicide.
Official statistics on the number of deaths by window falls are not publicly available because all falls, such as from furniture or in playgrounds, are classified together. But falls are probably the second or third biggest cause of childhood injuries, said Grivna, after traffic accidents and about equal to drownings.
Pressure on the authorities to act is emerging now as UAE residents become more sensitive to child welfare issues in general, said Samia Kazi, the chief operating officer of Arabian Child, an early-child advocacy organization.
“I think that because there’s becoming increased awareness toward children in general, not just window falling,” Kazi told The Media Line. “More people and more media are talking about children, especially about early-childhood education … so there is generally more focus on child welfare and education.”
Her group began an awareness campaign four years ago. But experts and government officials agree that it will take time because the responsibility for falls lies as much with builders who don’t install proper safety measures as it does with parents who don’t supervise their children.
“When the builders put forth their plans they don’t take into account safety for young children and children with disabilities,” Kazi said. “There are pressures on families and a lack of awareness. In a lot of cases, it’s parents leaving their children at home because they can’t afford the care or are unprepared or incapable of taking care of children.”
The three-year-old who plunged to her death from an Abu Dhabi apartment last month had been in the care of an aunt who had fallen asleep.
Nevertheless, government action can help, said Grivna. Faced with a spate of falling deaths in the 1970s, New York City undertook a campaign over education and regulations that reduced the number of death from 40 to 50 annually to just four by 1980.
A woman posting a comment in the talkbacks section of the local daily Emirates 24/7
said she chooses to live in an older, unattractive building because it is safer.
“The windows are so heavy, they could hardly be opened beyond 10 cm (double glass, metal frame). Balcony front is concrete, 1.5m high, and we never let kids go there with chairs! Door to balcony is locked during night-time. If they want to gaze outside, they go only an with adult. Ugly building but safe.”
Grivna points to three groups of risk factors. The first is the environment, by which he means furniture placed too close to windows or balcony railings that children can climb on. Balconies with horizontal railings also make excellent ersatz ladders, he said. Window barriers, he stressed, should be removable for escape in case of fire.
The second is parental supervision. But he warned that without creating a safe environment as well, that is never enough. “Parent cannot supervise 100% of the time,” he said.
The final risk factor is the children themselves. Grivna said all children present a risk and measures like window bars are appropriate even for children up to age 11. Children under five present a special risk because they cannot under any circumstances be educated on safety.