5 Hunger Strikes That Caught the World's Attention


As has been discussed across media outlets and on PolicyMic, there is an ongoing hunger strike at the Guantánamo Bay prison. Over 100 inmates are protesting the ongoing troubles at the prison as many are stuck without an ability to leave even though they are not facing trial for a crime. While the broader implications of this hunger strike remain to be seen, it's worth looking at how it stacks up against other hunger strikes throughout history. Here are five that either had an impact on public policy, or gained attention for the cause they were promoting.


1. Marion Wallace-Dunlop

Wallace-Dunlop was an early suffragette in Britain. She was arrested for stamping a pro-suffrage passage on a wall of the House of Commons, and was convicted of willful damage. She refused to pay a fine and was sent to prison for what was to be a term of one month. She decided to seek treatment as a political prisoner rather than a common criminal, and when that was denied, she undertook her hunger strike. Fearing her death and martyrdom, the authorities released her from prison after 91 hours. Other suffragettes took on the same strategy, although they were either force-fed or allowed to leave prison until they regained their health, at which point they were remanded. Her actions helped to solidify the suffrage movement and to draw attention to it from the newly interested press.

2. Mohandas Gandhi

Gandhi was a part of several hunger strikes that protested continued British rule of India in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Gandhi’s hunger strikes drew attention to the Indian fight against British rule while maintaining a nonviolent method of doing so. Gandhi’s methods would continue to be used for a long time to come, both in India and in other places.

3. Potti Sriramulu

Another member of the Indian Independence movement who undertook Gandhi’s same methods fasted until he died after 58 days in 1952. Sriramulu was agitating for a separate state within the recently independent India to be created for the Telugu-speaking people. His death led to rioting and the eventual formation of the Andhra state. The idea that he advanced of reorganizing based on language would gain in popularity until India was organized based on those criteria.

4. 1981 Irish Hunger Strike

In the midst of the Troubles in Ireland, Irish republican prisoners began a hunger strike to protest the revocation of their special category status by the British government. Led by Bobby Sands, a former IRA commander, 10 strikers refused food, and the number would eventually grow to a total of 23. Sands would actually be elected to the House of Commons, although he would die as a result of his hunger strike before he would officially take his seat. Nine others would die before the strike was ended with most of the demands of the prisoners being met, although still without official recognition from the British government. Despite initial support for their handling of the situation, Margaret Thatcher and her government’s attitude toward the strike helped to bolster support for Sinn Féin, the party with which the strikers were aligned. This support helped lead to the changes in treatment of the other prisoners and helped to pave the way for the Anglo-Irish Agreement. 

5. Orlando Zapata Tamayo

Tamayo was a Cuban dissident who began a hunger strike in protest of conditions in the prison where he was located. Zapata died on February 23, 2010, after more than 80 days. The treatment of Zapata drew criticism from around the world and from all sides of the political spectrum. The situation was pointed to as a reason for the stalling of what were slowly improving relations between Cuba and the rest of the international community.