POLITICS

In socially conservative Chile, Pres. Bachelet signs same-sex civil union law

FILE - In this Dec. 9, 2014 file photo, Chile's President Michelle Bachelet puts on her glasses during a 2014 Iberoamerican Summit event in Veracruz, Mexico. Bachelets approval rating is at her lowest level ever, but she said Wednesday, April 8, 2015, that she doesn't care about her popularity, as shes focused on the well-being of Chile and pushing forward needed reforms. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)

FILE - In this Dec. 9, 2014 file photo, Chile's President Michelle Bachelet puts on her glasses during a 2014 Iberoamerican Summit event in Veracruz, Mexico. Bachelets approval rating is at her lowest level ever, but she said Wednesday, April 8, 2015, that she doesn't care about her popularity, as shes focused on the well-being of Chile and pushing forward needed reforms. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell, File)

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet on Monday signed a law that recognizes civil unions between same-sex couples, a sign of change in a country long regarded as one South America's most socially conservative nations.

The measure had been in the works for more than four years, and its signing into law was hailed by gay advocates as step toward full marriage rights.

"This ends the monopoly of having to recognize unions, families, as just within marriage," said Rolando Jimenez, president of the Gay Liberation and Integration Movement. "This is very good news for Chile."

The new law, to take effect in six months, gives same-sex and unmarried couples many of the rights granted to married couples. Partners can inherit each other's property, join one another's health plans and receive pension benefits.

Chile has long been one of the most socially conservative countries in the region. It was one of the last countries in the world to legalize divorce when it took that step in 2004.

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Chile decriminalized gay sex in 1999 and the killing of a gay man in 2012 set off a national debate that prompted Congress to pass a hate crimes law.

"Today we're advancing as a society," Bachelet said at the presidential palace. "We're taking a fundamental step on this road of rights, justice and respect for individual liberties."

Civil unions have been recognized in several countries across South America, though Argentina and Uruguay are the only ones that allow gay marriage.

The civil union will be validated by simply registering it in the civil registry. Gay unions abroad can also be registered in Chile.

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