Indian Court Grants Woman Divorce Over Husband’s Refusal to Install a Household Toilet

Relieving oneself in open fields is common practice in many parts of India, but the government is trying to change that

An Indian woman holds a bucket and walks to relieve herself in the open, on World Toilet Day on the outskirts of Jammu, India, in 2014. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)

Marriages can dissolve for any number of reasons, but a family court in India recently permitted a woman to divorce her husband over an unusual point of contention: a toilet, or rather, a lack thereof.

According to Kshitiz Gaur of the Times of India, the 24-year-old woman claimed that her husband refused to install a toilet or bathroom in their home. As a result, she was forced to relieve herself in open fields at night, which she said “undermined her dignity.”  The couple was married in 2011 and the wife filed for divorce in 2015 at a family court in Bhilwara, a city in the Indian state of Rajasthan.

Urinating and defecating in the open is common practice in some rural parts of India; Unicef estimates that about 564 million people—half of the country’s population—do not use toilets. As Fred Barbash notes in the Washington Post, men often relieve themselves in open fields or on the road during broad daylight. But expectations of modesty compels women to wait until darkness falls, which in turn subjects them to inconvenience, discomfort and danger.

In the case of the Bhilwara couple, the court ruled that the husband’s refusal to provide his wife with a toilet was tantamount to “cruelty.”

"We spend money on buying tobacco, liquor and mobile phones, but are unwilling to construct toilets to protect the dignity of our family,” the court said, according to Gaur. “In villages, women have to wait until sunset to answer nature's call. This is not only physical cruelty but also outraging the modesty of a woman."

The ruling coincides with the government’s campaign to provide every Indian household with a toilet by 2019, in an effort to curb diseases associated with the lack of proper sanitation and, as the BBC reports, to ensure women’s comfort and safety. But the initiative has been met with wariness, and people who have had toilets installed in their homes do not always use them.

According to a Washington Post article by Rama Lakshmi, this reluctance is tied to India’s rigid caste system, in which historically the lowest classes were tasked with waste removal. Keeping a toilet in the home is consequently viewed as undesirable and unclean. In reality, however, going to the bathroom in the open exposes people to water-borne diseases, which are a leading cause of death for Indian children under the age of five.

To combat the stigma, the Indian government has launched a number of ad campaigns ridiculing people—and particularly men—who do not make use of toilets. “Uncle, you wear a tie around your neck, shoes on your feet, but you still defecate in the open,” a child says in one commercial, according to Lakshmi. “What kind of progress is this?”

Another campaign, titled “No Toilet, No Bride,” encouraged young women to refuse marriage unless their grooms-to-be promised to provide them with a commode. The campaign also came with a catchy radio jingle: “No loo, no ‘I do.’”

Alas, such initiatives do not appeared to have done much for the couple in Rajasthan. Gaur of the Times of India reports that the husband found his wife’s request for a toilet “unusual,” since most women in their village continue to relieve themselves in the open, so the couple have gone their separate ways, unable to resolve their washroom woes.