Chile passes law to allow divorce for the first time

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The Independent US

One of the world's last strongholds of irrevocable marriage has finally fallen. Chile, which until last week was one of three countries that forbade divorce, has finally reversed that policy. Now only Malta and the Philippines are left.

One of the world's last strongholds of irrevocable marriage has finally fallen. Chile, which until last week was one of three countries that forbade divorce, has finally reversed that policy. Now only Malta and the Philippines are left.

Lawyers in Chile are dealing with a rush of clients eager to break their marital bonds now that the floodgates have been opened. Quite apart from those who have become tired of their partners, there are many Chilean women who suffer domestic violence. One in four say they have suffered physical violence, and seven in 10 report having been the victims of psychological violence by their spouses.

The change in the law has been a long time coming. Chile's family laws had not changed since 1884, mainly because of the influence of the Catholic Church, particularly with regard to the family. The result is that many Chileans had begun turning away from marriage because of its inviolability, and in the past decade figures show a startling 45 per cent drop in the number of Chileans marrying. While there were 104,700 marriages in 1990, only 57,500 tied the knot in 2003.

And broken marriages are not exactly uncommon. Though you couldn't get a divorce until recently, 15 per cent of Chileans are separated and another 10 per cent of marriages end in annulments - a legal loophole. But annulments are tricky, costly and there must be mutual consent.

Not surprisingly, centre-left governments have been trying to liberalise Chile's family laws since the return to democracy in 1990. And after almost a decade of legislative wrangling, Congress approved a bill to legalise divorce in March. It came into force on 18 November, and will allow a divorce after one year's separation if the request is mutual. There will be a three-year wait if the application is unilateral.

Cecilia Perez, the Socialist minister for women's issues, says the bill is a victory over traditional conservatism which will liberate women trapped by antiquated laws: separated women were previously unable to perform any commercial transaction without the signature of their husband. The bill will also protect the rights of children by dictating support payments.

In addition, Ms Perez says, it will help to end the spiral of domestic violence. It is no coincidence that the first woman in line for a divorce was Maria Victoria Torres, 47, a housewife who said she had suffered domestic violence.

That's how Alicia Quinonez Bustamante lived for most of her life. "Unfortunately we are a generation of repressed women," says the softly spoken 50-year-old. "They teach you that marriage is for life and I was ashamed to admit that I had made a bad choice. And so I tried to maintain the relationship, hoping it would improve with time. But it only got worse."

Ms Bustamante separated from her husband almost five years ago, when he disappeared after threatening to kill her, but she still fears he will return some day to harm her physically or financially. As her husband, he could still theoretically lay claim to half her assets. But once her divorce gets the rubber stamp it needs, she says she will feel fully free.

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