International law gaps on menstruation and menopause

A re-evaluation of protections is proposed to address the effects of menstruation and menopause on women’s work rights.
By: | November 9, 2023

International law does not adequately address the impact of menstruation and menopause on women’s right to work.

A study, titled Engendering the Right to Work in International Law: Recognising Menstruation and Menopause in Paid Work, examined two key human rights conventions – the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women – to which many countries, including Australia, are signatories.

The researchers found that these conventions offer a range of important anti-discrimination protections for pregnancy and childcare, health protections for pregnant employees, the right to paid maternity leave, and some workplace breastfeeding rights. However, they do not explicitly recognise menstruation and menopause.

Sydney Colussi, lead author of the study and a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, said, “It’s now nearly universally accepted that pregnancy and childbirth shouldn’t impact the right to work, but other reproductive issues – notably menstruation and menopause – have not yet received adequate attention in international law.”

“We argue that if the right to work is to be properly upheld, the law needs to protect women from the discrimination they face for reproductive issues at all stages of their life.”

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Colussi said there have been cases of direct discrimination against employees for menstruation and menopause, and that employees in the UK, US and New Zealand have brought anti-discrimination claims alleging unfair treatment and dismissal related to these issues. Citing research from the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees, Colussi suggested that society’s attitude to menopause is costing women in Australia A$17 billion (US$10.9 million) in lost earnings and retirement savings.

“Australia is also facing a workforce sustainability crisis in feminised industries such as healthcare, social assistance, and education. All this means it is critical to ensure that menopause is not having an adverse impact on women’s careers,” she concluded.