Hunger Strikes

Hunger strikes as a means of protest have been traced to the pre-Christian era in Rome. They were revived in the early twentieth century in England by women suffragists. A global phenomenon, hunger strikes have been reported from Ireland to Beijing, Istanbul to New Delhi and the United States. Purportedly the longest hunger strike continued for seventy-four days, ending in the death of a Sinn Fein political party member in the 1920s. Ireland was also the scene of the largest reported hunger strike, involving 8,000 political prisoners and internees in 1923.

A true hunger strike represents a competent individual's intentional refusal to eat and or drink for some specific purpose. Definitions vary, however, in the specificity of both fluid intake and the time interval required to certify such an act as a hunger strike. Occasionally hunger striking is an indication of mental illness that is tantamount to actual or attempted suicide. William Butler Yeats captured in verse what may be the primary aim of hunger striking, that is to "shame" those in authority to right a "wrong" or injustice. "Persuade him to eat or drink? / While he is lying there. Perishing there, my good name in the world / Is perishing also. I cannot give way, / Because I am king, because if I give way, / My nobles would call me a weakling, and, it may be, / the very throne be shaken." Most often it entails acts of nonviolent protest to prompt redress of structural or human rights violations, whether unjust imprisonment, objectionable living conditions for prisoners, or struggles against oppression by groups such as the United Farm Workers in California or the people of Tibet.

Prisoners, priests, students, suffragists, nationalists, pacifists, and activists have been emboldened to use fasting and hunger strikes to publicize and underscore their personal and political agendas. Mohandas Gandhi resorted to fasting at least fourteen times, but never for longer than twentyone days. In 1981 Irish republicans initiated hunger strikes to demand status as political detainees, asserting the political nature of their claims. For the Irish, particularly northern Catholics, hunger strikes have both historical and mythological precedents. They are viewed symbolically as acts of religiopolitical martyrdom, linking the protagonist to the pantheon of Irish heroes and the cult of sacrifice, whose most notable exemplar was Jesus Christ.

The ability to accurately document and enumerate the incidence of hunger strikes, along with statistics on morbidity or mortality, is severely hampered by a lack of any systematic surveillance, so the reporting of such incidents remain haphazard. In 1991 the World Medical Association issued guidelines for physicians who treat hunger strikers; a key point of the paper is that care should not be contingent on the suspension of the strike but must be based on clear communication between patient and provider in a context of respect, beneficence, and autonomy.

Hunger striking as a political tool has had mixed success. Court-mandated forced feeding, a controversial precedent set in the early suffragist movement in England, has since been used by governments to stifle or terminate hunger strikes, as in the case of Red Army Faction prisoners in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s. There have been several notable negotiated settlements of strikes; for example, the Bulgarian strikes of 1925–1929, which resulted in a partial amnesty for political prisoners. The 1978 hunger strike in Bolivia led to the downfall of the military regime. In some cases where demands have been ignored, the prolongation of the hunger strikes have led to the death of some strikers, as in the Irish strikes of 1981 and in Turkey in 1996.

In the case of Bobby Sands and the nine other Irish prisoners who died, world opinion seemed to support the British government's position during the strike. After the fatalities, however, mass sentiment began to shift in favor of the Irish Republican movement, whose candidates went on to win several seats in Irish and British parliamentary elections of 1983. In Turkey, the 1996 hunger strike of hundreds of political prisoners resulted in at least twelve deaths, and many surviving prisoners had residual neurologic and psychiatric effects. The death toll from the Turkish strike of 2001 stands at twenty and prompted the government to initiate some of the reforms in prisoner treatment sought by human rights groups.

While reports of hunger strikes reach far back into antiquity, the dawn of a new millennium brings evidence of their ongoing use. It appears that hunger striking will continue to represent a powerful form of protest as long as there remain the oppressive political and social conditions that seem to give rise to them.

See also: Causes OF Death ; Famine ; Social Functions OF Death


Peel, Michael. "Hunger Strikes." British Medical Journal 315 (1997):829–830.

World Medical Association. World Medical Association Declaration on Hunger Strikers. 43rd World Medical Assembly. Malta, November 1991.


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