What is a Hunger Strike?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

One of the few things that remains under the control of a prisoner or protester is his or her food intake. Voluntarily refusing to eat solid food and/or liquids can sometimes provide some much needed political or societal leverage for someone whose plight has captured public attention. Such a drastic but effective form of protest is known as a hunger strike. The use of a hunger strike to express non-violent is centuries old, although early hunger strikers were more likely to use the threat of death by starvation to embarrass or shame debtors into repayment, not to effect sweeping social change.

A hunger strike is a tactic commonly employed by protesters.
A hunger strike is a tactic commonly employed by protesters.

A hunger strike generally begins with a prisoner or protester's refusal to eat any solid food offered by a captor or any government authority. Some may also refuse to drink liquids as well, but the majority of hunger strikers seem to prefer a longer starvation process to generate maximum political or social pressure on their oppressors. Without liquids, a person may live only a week at most, but without solid foods a hunger striker could conceivably cling to life for 60 days or longer. Meanwhile, the real possibility of having a protester or prisoner died in custody often creates true shame or embarrassment on the part of the government agency or other jailers.

The hunger strike technique of protest is strongly associated with Mohandas Gandhi.
The hunger strike technique of protest is strongly associated with Mohandas Gandhi.

Perhaps the most famous use of a hunger strike as non-violent resistance occurred in British-occupied India during the mid 20th century. Mohandas Gandhi organized several protests against the oppressive British government, which resulted in several highly publicized arrests. Gandhi understood how much attention his calls for Indian independence had garnered in the rest of the world, so he routinely chose to go on a hunger strike while in captivity. The thought of allowing such a prominent figure as Gandhi die of starvation in one of their prisons was politically embarrassing enough to prompt the British rulers to consider Gandhi's demands.

A hunger strike or fasting is also a tactic used by prisoners to shame the administrators into addressing a longstanding problem or providing more privileges. Refusing to eat solid food is a fairly straightforward gesture for protesters, but can create a number of problems for their captors. It is not unusual for a prison hunger strike to end with forced feedings of protesters and the revocation of privileges until order is restored. Political prisoners, such as those held in Cuba as enemy combatants, may have a little more leverage during a hunger strike, since their actions are often witnessed by lawyers, journalists and civil rights activists.

There is never a guarantee that a hunger strike will yield the results sought by the striker. Many hunger strikers become too ill to resist force feeding efforts or medical intervention. Some become irreversibly damaged as vital organs shut down and brain damage begins. Sadly, some hunger strikers die even after their strike-ending demands have been met. A hunger strike is a non-violent act in one sense, but in other ways it can be a very destructive tactic with limited chances for success.

Individuals whose bodies have entered starvation mode will typically have a weak pulse.
Individuals whose bodies have entered starvation mode will typically have a weak pulse.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


I personally do not think that hunger strikes are very effective. Yes, sometimes people do get what they want, but there is no guarantee. Many people have died without achieving what they had aimed for. It really depends on the response of the authorities that one is struggling against.

Every administration will not feel shame when a prisoner dies due to a hunger strike. I think there are many administrations in the world who couldn't care less. Unfortunately, a hunger strike is not something that is effective if one gives up mid-way. But not giving up could very well result in death.


Gandhi's satyagarha (passive resistance) and ahimsa (nonviolence) movement had many different strategies. Hunger strikes was a part of this movement but it was not the only method. Gandhi resisted British occupation and oppression in many different ways. For example, he organized peaceful protests where people simply walked from one part of India to another. The protesters never engaged in violence. If they were beaten, they were directed to just take it without responding.

Gandhi also resisted by urging the people to make their own fabric and salt so that they would be less reliant on the British who monopolized both sectors in India. Gandhi himself wore a basic cotton fabric that he himself weaved.

He was arrested multiple times and he resisted those arrests by refusing food and refusing to pay the fines ordered by the British authorities. Gandhi's movement is of the most unique and effective movements for freedom in the world. Many other freedom movements have used the same strategies after Gandhi.


I saw a film the other day about the women's movement for the right to vote in the United States. Those women who had been arrested for protesting women's inability to vote went on a hunger strike to get their message across.

Unfortunately, the hunger strike was made even more difficult for them because of force feeding by the jail authorities. They were force fed raw eggs, which were poured down tubes that were forcefully inserted into their throat. It was awful and I got goosebumps while watching those scenes.

We need to remember the struggle that these women put up so that American women could vote.

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