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Page last updated at 16:26 GMT, Monday, 6 October 2003 17:26 UK

Till the divorce law becomes legal

Elliott Gotkine
Elliott Gotkine
BBC South America correspondent

A Chilean wedding
Ending this union may be about to get a whole lot easier

What have Malta, the Philippines and Chile got in common?

Answer: divorce is illegal in all three. But Chile looks set to leave this select group of nations after its Senate finally agreed to debate a bill to legalise divorce.

It could come into effect as early as next year.

The move has provoked controversy among the country's conservative Roman Catholics. But for Javier Jenot and his partner, Veronica Allendes, it can't come soon enough.

On a chilly Sunday in a quiet middle-class suburb of Santiago, Javier and Veronica, or Kiki as he likes to call her, are taking time out to spend a not-so-relaxing morning with their five children.

All but two of the children are from their previous marriages. For Kiki, the solution was simple.

She and her former husband split in the only way possible under Chilean law: by getting their marriage annulled.

All they needed was a lawyer, an obliging judge and four witnesses to testify that the original two witnesses at their wedding gave false information -- even if this wasn't the case.

Thousands of Chileans do likewise each year.

Even Chile's President, Ricardo Lagos - whose grin, ironically, beams out from a portrait that overlooks the thousands of marriages that take place each year at Santiago's main registry office - has had a marriage annulled.

But life is not been so simple for French-born Javier. "I've been separated for five years," he says.

"I've been living with Kiki for the last four years, yet I'm still legally married to my wife, since divorce is not legal in Chile and she wouldn't agree to annul the marriage. So we just had to live that way."

They may not have to do so for much longer.

'Great advance'

If the new divorce law (which is included in a new bill on marriage) is approved - as expected - it will mean people like Javier will be able to separate permanently from their partner whether their other half likes it or not.

Senator Hernan Larrain
Senator Larrain believes divorce laws will lead to abortion laws

But conservative Catholics opposed to divorce are not taking it lying down.

In fact, they have been so successful that the new law could actually make breaking up even harder to do.

"The divorce law is a great advance," says Santiago-based lawyer Sofia Yanez.

"But it presents certain problems, particularly regarding the time-periods. To get divorced by mutual consent, couples will have to wait three years, but if it's contested, five years.

"This means people will resort to inventing reasons to be able to obtain a divorce by blame, and be able to get divorced immediately."

It is a loophole some Chileans are sure to exploit.

In theory, all they'll have to do is convince the authorities that one of the couple is, say, gay or an alcoholic (or preferably both) and they'll be able to get a quickie divorce.

But just in case the new divorce law doesn't have enough restrictions, the Catholic Church recently launched a series of television and radio ads, designed to highlight the Pandora's Box of problems awaiting Chilean society, if the divorce becomes legal.

Concerns

Even so, opinions varied among the Catholics filing out of Sunday Mass at one of Santiago's finest churches.

"I'm really proud that Chile is one of the last countries where the law hasn't been approved," said one girl in her early 20s, as her beaming father looked on.

"As a Catholic person I think marriage must be respected and be a commitment for life."

But one middle-aged man nearby complained that the existing system was out-of-date "because there is a lot of hypocrisy in our society".

Conservative Senator Hernan Larrain agrees. The 55-year old father of six is against annulments.

But he's even more opposed to the new divorce law, which he says will encourage men to forget about their obligations to their former wives, and most worryingly, their children.

A Chilean street
Most Chileans support the new proposals to make divorce easier

Yet Mr Larrain's concern about the new divorce law goes much further than just financial support for previous families.

"There is a chain," he says.

"I don't know if there is an internal relation, but it happens. Once divorce is approved, then comes abortion laws, and once abortion laws are approved, then we'll have homosexual laws that will permit union within the gay community."

Luckily for Javier and Veronica, Mr Larrain's views fail to strike a chord with the 70% or so of Chileans who support the legalisation of divorce, which could be approved as early as next year.

What effect will the divorce law have on Javier and Veronica's situation?

"I will get divorced," says Javier, matter-of-factly.

"And we can marry," says Veronica.

SEE ALSO
Chilean TV snubs anti-divorce ads
30 Sep 03 |  Americas
Church slams Chile divorce plans
19 Sep 03 |  Americas

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