Eli5: Why do hunger strikes work?


I’ve never understood this. Isn’t it in the interest of people in power or people jailing you to watch you starve to death? Yet in prisons and detention centers, it’s always the go-to. Why do they work?

In: 30

They only work if they garner the sympathies of the public who, as a mob, are not very rational. So it’s the emotional manipulation of the public.

After a while, public sympathy becomes public pressure against those in power to change laws or a course of action.

First of all, they usually don’t. You hear about hunger strikes occasionally but how often do you ever hear a follow-up story about the person being released and exonerated or the policy in question being changed?

Vladimir Putin doesn’t care if you starve to death, and western governments will drag you off to the medical ward and stick an IV in you if you hold out that long.

People do them because that’s the only protest they can realistically do if they’re already in prison, and enough coverage and enough supporters *outside* prison can cause a larger protest movement to develop.

If your prisons are known for causing death and suffering, you get a riot in any reasonable country. Hunger strikes are a way of publicizing that suffering.

Hunger strikes only work when you are popular and there are people that care about you. Any thing happens to you would potentially create riots, political instability, etc. Its also slow like takes days or weeks so there is time for people to know and understand the situation and your demands to make up their mind.

If you are nobody, then nobody cares.

As a counterpoint to a few of these comments – one issue where it absolutely did have an effect was the fight for women’s suffrage in Britain. Though it didn’t lead directly to success, it had a big impact in the narrative the public were seeing, which ultimately will always create progress.
Votes for Women was (unsurprisingly) treated by many public figures and much of the media as silly women saying things. Lots of narratives painted them as not to be taken seriously, or else raging harpies who just hated men and were acting out of spite. The hunger strikes were begun by Marion Wallace Dunlop, who acted as an individual, but were quickly adopted as highly coordinated collective action.
The authorities were petrified of women dying in prison. Though the suffragettes were a tough lot and literally went around committing arson and throwing rocks at Churchill, they were still women, and the optics of women dying in the hands of the state has always been a very difficult one for the public to stomach. There’s no clear, rational reason for this, the vibe just feels worse and that can be very powerful (the execution of two women in quick succession had a big impact in ending the death penalty in the UK as well).

The notion that women (especially ‘women’ as the Victorian middle class constructed them) would put themselves in such danger, coupled with some of the shocking reports of brutal forcefeeding, had a big impact on public perception. The Women’s Social and Political Union issued graphic illustrations and descriptions of women struggling and being restrained whilst a tube was forced down their throat or up their nose. These revelations caused considerable public concern at such brutal treatment by the authorities on vulnerable women. Some men also went on hunger strike in solidarity, including members of the Men’s Political Union for Women’s Enfranchisement, which lent a legitimacy and seriousness to what women were doing in the public eye. It made them noble and committed, rather than vindictive or mad.

As a lot of other commenters have said, some chap going hungry in a cell by himself isn’t usually very effective. But when hunger strikes are used carefully as a collective action, and then used a way of shifting narratives in your favour, they can be very powerful.

Original comments’ indicating it’s one of the only protests available to an inmate. It can prove a very effective type of protest as seen in Northern Ireland in the 80’s – even though 10 of them died it had a massive impact on the course of the troubles there – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/1981_Irish_hunger_strike

As the prison administrator, it’s your job to look after the people under your care, even if they are prisoners. If you willingly allow some idiot to starve to death without even trying to stop them, you will be held accountable for their death. So you have to do something. You don’t have to cave into their demands, but you have to at least try something. I’m guessing that they let the prisoner get good and hungry before negotiating though. Not at-deaths-door starving, but a few days of hunger pangs may make negotiations go easier for you.

Hunger strikes work if there are enough people who care about you to be driven to action by your threat of starving to death. Or, they work if there are enough people who care enough about the bad publicity you’re bringing them to stop what they’re doing. It’s a move that draws attention to a problem but gives the problem time to be solved before you die – unlike self-immolation.


The idea behind a hunger strike is less to encourage the people in power to change and more to bring social/political pressure on them.
For example if a prisoner were to go on a hunger strike in the USA, the prison is generally under strong social/political pressure not to let their prisoners die. So the hope is, they will be pressured to cave to your demands before you get too sick/die. As u/Lithuim points out, they’ll probably just force feed you intravenously first.

Outside of prison, the idea is generally to bring attention to your cause. “This person is willing to die over this!” tends to incite some action. This doesn’t work all this well for the average person on the street, but for some more famous or followed folks, it can be a huge call to action. Ghandi being the most famous example.