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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 November, 2004, 12:59 GMT
The road to divorce in Chile
By Clinton Porteous
BBC News, Santiago

Regina Verdugo feels trapped by her marriage. She is separated from her husband yet still legally married to him.

Regina and her family
Regina says the ban on divorce has a practical and emotional impact

She lives in Chile which, along with Malta and the Philippines, has long held out against authorising divorce.

But with a new law allowing her to legally dissolve her marriage coming into force, Regina is preparing to take advantage of her chance to escape.

"I want my divorce so I can be a free woman, so that I am not attached to my husband in any way. So that we can be two free people, each of us with our own lives," she says.

Opting out?

For Regina divorce is important emotionally, but also practically. Until now she could not open a bank account or take her youngest daughter on an overseas holiday without the signature of her estranged husband, she says.

She has also been worried about the future of the family house, where she lives with three of four children, because it is in his name.

For Regina, obtaining the divorce will bring freedom and peace of mind. It is a chance to start afresh.

Yet for others in Chile it is a dark day indeed.

Fernanda Otero is a committed Catholic who has been married for 20 years and has eight children.

A Chilean street
Most Chileans support the new divorce law

She says divorce will change the concept of marriage in Chile by making it too easy to opt-out and leave. Marriages will become more unstable and the ultimate victims will be children, she argues.

"I think the divorce law introduces the idea that if we have problems we can say goodbye. I think it is going to be bad for the children of Chile, because children need stability. They need their mother and father together."

Although opinion polls suggest the the majority of Chileans are in favour of divorce, there has been a strong opposition campaign led by the Roman Catholic Church. Some 70% of the country's population describe themselves as Catholic.

Attention in Chile will now focus on the courts in Chile and the expected rush of demands.

Jenny Book presides over the 7th civil court in Santiago and is one of the judges who will handle divorce cases. She believes it is a good, progressive law but also thinks the workload could be unmanageable in the first few months. She has been given new staff but she says it will take "three or four months to train them".

Eventually divorce cases in Chile will be handled by a family tribunal but that will not start operating until the end of 2005.

Prompting change

While there is great interest in how the new law will work, market researcher Marta Lagos, of Mori Chile, says Chilean society is conservative and divorce could be a catalyst for change.

Fernanda and her daughter
Fernanda worries people will opt out of marriage too quickly

"People will feel more free to speak about other demands, that have been hanging in the population that have not been expressed, with respect to gay rights and with respect to abortion, for example," she says.

Like many Chileans, she also thinks that the divorce law could trigger a surge in the number of marriages.

Marriage rates have been plummeting in recent years and the theory is that when Chilean couples know there is way out they are more likely to tie the knot.

Chile Congress backs divorce law
11 Mar 04 |  Americas
Till the divorce law becomes legal
06 Oct 03 |  Americas
Chilean TV snubs anti-divorce ads
30 Sep 03 |  Americas
Church slams Chile divorce plans
19 Sep 03 |  Americas

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