Uruguay has become the first South American country to legalise same-sex unions.

President Tabare Vazquez signed the bill, which officially recognises lesbian and gay couples, on Thursday after it was successfully passed by the country’s parliament last month.

The law grants monogamous and permanent couples “of any sex, identity, orientation or sexual option” that have lived together for five years or longer the same rights as married couples.

Couples must sign a registry to make the civil union official. The legislation, which was vehemently opposed by the Catholic Church, comes into effect at the start of 2008.

The law ensures that those in same-sex relationships qualify for the same health, insurance, inheritance, property and pension rights as married couples.

Nevertheless, under Uruguay’s law, full same-sex marriage remains outlawed, something gay rights activists are expected to continue to lobby against.

While Uruguay is the first nation to recognise same-sex relationships on the South American continent, some regions such as Mexico City and certain states in Brazil and Argentina have also legalised gay unions.

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