An Indian woman walks in a field in 2014 after relieving herself in the open, on World Toilet Day on the outskirts of Jammu, India. (Channi Anand/AP)

There’s a newly released Bollywood film about a woman in India who left her husband for failing to provide a toilet. It’s called, “Toilet: Ek Prem Katha” in Hindi, which translates to “Toilet: A Love Story.” It’s based on the true story of Anita Narre, whose protest against defecating outside not only ultimately got her husband to build a toilet with government aid but inspired what the Indian press called a “toilet revolution” in her village in the state of Madhya Pradesh.

The film is described as a “satirical love story.”

But there isn’t much humor in the premise it describes.

First-time visitors to India, having read of the country’s technological prowess, are often surprised to learn that some 60 percent of the country’s households lack access to toilets. (There’s no app for that.) In rural areas, but also in many urban enclaves, they will see men just doing it in the road or in fields visible from the roads in broad daylight. They are much less likely to see women going outside, not because they don’t, but because modesty dictates that they do it in the dark of night, exposing them not only to inconvenience, indignity and disease but rape. 

The situation is so bad that some years ago, public health advocates launched a “No toilet, No bride” campaign. Women were urged to refuse marriage unless the perspective husband furnished their home with a bathroom.

Now women have another possible incentive to offer husbands who can, but won’t, provide proper toilets: divorce.

According to the Times of India, a family court judge in the state of Rajasthan has decided that failure to provide a bathroom is an act of cruelty sufficiently significant to be grounds for divorce.

The decision, described as probably a first by The Times, came in the case of a 24-year-old woman whose husband declined to provide facilities, saying they were unnecessary and unusual, noting that most women in their village were content to go in the open. This forced her to go to the bathroom and bathe at dusk, outside.

“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 The Times.


An Indian man urinates on a wall on the roadside in front of a poster for the Hindi film “Toilet” in Hyderabad on Aug. 12. (AFP/Getty Images)

“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,” said the judge, identified by Agence France-Presse as Rajendra Kumar Sharma.

The decision is especially significant because Indian courts grant divorces only in limited circumstances, such as physical abuse.

The long-standing problem, as the judge suggested, is no longer so much that people can’t provide toilets. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reportedly succeeded in adding millions to the nation’s inventory.

Getting some people to use them, especially in the villages, is also an issue. One of the reasons, as The Washington Post’s Rama Lakshmi reported, is a caste system in which cleaning toilets is the job of the lowest on the rung and having a toilet in the home is, by association, considered unclean.

The government has run ads on billboards seeking to shame men into action. One of the ads pictured a child, as The Post reported, saying “Uncle, you wear a tie around your neck, shoes on your feet, but you still defecate in the open. What kind of progress is this?” Another said: “You may have a smartphone in your hand, but you still squat on train tracks.”

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