Untying Chile's marriage knot

The Senate is debating a bill that would allow divorce.

Hilda Mendez sits in her three-room brick house in a working class district of Santiago, listening to the dulcet tones of Chilean romantic singers on the radio. But she hasn't had any real romance in eight years.

That's when her husband left. He now lives in a house built on land they had jointly owned, but he hasn't paid any child support for their two children. Chile does not allow divorce, so Mendez and hundreds of thousands of women like her have no effective means to redress their grievances.

Under Chilean law, her ex-husband will automatically inherit one-half of her estate, and, without his formal approval, she can't open a bank account or sell the house she bought with her own money. "It's impossible to sell the house, because I need his signature," says Ms. Mendez. "And he won't give it."

Chile is the only country in the Western world that still prohibits divorce. The House of Deputies passed a divorce bill five years ago, but a special Senate committee only decided to begin debate on the bill earlier this month.

Opinion polls consistently show that more than 70 percent of Chileans support the right to divorce. President Ricardo Lagos has made legalizing divorce a high priority for his administration. However, a Senate dominated by conservatives is fighting hard to block divorce reform.

Maria Antonieta Saa, chair of the Family Commission of the House of Deputies, says opposition to divorce goes back many years in the conservative culture of her country. "Chile is a very macho country, very patriarchal," says Ms. Saa. "Many men think women are their property."

Saa says studies show that 26 percent of Chilean women have experienced domestic violence at least once, and women still earn 40 percent less than men. She says passage of a fair divorce law will at least allow women to recover their property and control their lives financially.

But divorce opponents also say they support the rights of women. If divorce is legalized, they argue, divorced women and their children will be affected the most.

"The proposed divorce law leaves women in an inferior position," says Flavio Angelini, president of the House of Family Foundation, a lobbying group that's against divorce. "Women will become poorer" because they won't have their husband's incomes, he says. "Children will feel the conflict. The law in Chile now promotes good marriages and allows for settling of conflicts."

Those against divorce stress the importance of counseling, which could reunite couples. A divorce law will cause family breakups, says Jorge Morales, an attorney for Chile's Roman Catholic Church. He cites the high divorce rates in the US as an example of how divorce law can promote the "degradation of society."

The influence of the marriage contract goes beyond the individual, Mr. Morales says: "It affects other couples, the children, and society. I can't unilaterally exercise rights that affect the human rights of others. A child has the right to live with both parents, just as he has the right to life."

But many Chileans say the Catholic Church hierarchy is out of touch with society on this issue. Adriana Muñoz, president of the House of Deputies, argues that families split apart for a variety of reasons, not because a divorce law provokes it.

The Senate will discuss at least three proposals:

• Chile's lower house passed a divorce bill in 1997 that allows for uncontested divorce after couples have separated for three years – or after five years, if contested.

• The Lagos administration's bill, which would allow any divorce after two years of separation.

• Two conservative Christian Democrats have offered a bill that will allow divorce under restricted circumstances, such as if one partner has been living with someone else for five years with no children.

The Senate committee is expected to discuss the bills for two months and then decide whether to allow debate in the full Senate. Ms. Muñoz expects fierce opposition to divorce in both the committee and the full Senate.

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