Hunger strikes are a form of non-violent protest that are not often used by activists. This is because they can be exceedingly dangerous if not done correctly. Fasting in protest is most successful in raising awareness about an issue. It shows personal dedication and a willingness to sacrifice for a cause that appeals to media. Though it’s not always the best option, a safe hunger strike can really draw attention to injustice. This guide will cover:
History of hunger strikes
When it works best
How to stay safe
Tips for fasting
Coming off a hunger strike
The first hunger strikes were supposedly over unpaid debts in Ireland. People would sit on the doorstep of those who owed them money. This was an attempt to dishonour the indebted person, as hospitality was prized above all. Someone starving on your doorstep was the greatest shame and embarrassment.
Hunger strikes continued to be strategic forms of protest. In the early 1990s British and American suffragettes were imprisoned for trying to advance women’s rights. As a result, many went on hunger strikes. Officials were afraid that if the women died they would be held as martyrs for the suffrage movement. Force feeding, through inserting tubes down the throat into the stomach, was used to squash the strikes. Ghandi also began fasting when he was jailed by the British, as his deteriorating condition would reflect badly on Britain internationally.
Most recently hunger strikes have been used at Guantanamo Bay. Prisoners have reported inhumane treatment while being force fed after mass strikes that have continued on and off since 2002.
When to fast
Giving up food is a huge sacrifice and you want your efforts to be effective. The message should be appropriate for the action. Your purpose in the strike depends on your desired results. If you have a specific action in mind, such as the release of a political prisoner, than your goal will be to lobby and attract attention to the issue until the action is completed. Other strikes are intended to be sympathetic. You fast in solidarity, to feel the hunger that others feel and raise awareness. These strikes may have a predetermined length.
Many people who take on hunger strikes do so when they have little freedom, such as when they are imprisoned. However, fasting doesn’t have to be an individual protest. In fact, many hunger strikes have been successful with a large number of participants, such as the 30hour famine and the Homelessness Hunger Strike Relay.
Whether you’re fasting for a day or a month, it’s a dangerous form of protest. Make sure you understand the consequences specific to you and your personal health before fasting. Some hunger strikes include a single bowl of rice a day, others only liquids. It’s important to assess your ability to participate and find a method of fasting that is the safest for you.
Set aside a month to prepare. This not only helps you organize for your protest, contact media and recruit others, but also gives you a chance to ease into fasting so it’s not a total shock to your system. Start in the first few weeks by cutting junk food, meat and eventually dairy. In the final week before your fast, decrease your portion sizes to ready yourself.
While you’re fasting make sure to drink a lot of water and other liquids with some nutritional value (vegetable juices, etc).
Water can get boring, so try flavouring it with bullion cubes or herbal teas.
Get extra hours of sleep.
Take on low energy activities: meditate, read and keep a journal or blog.
Avoid exercising or any other physical strain as you will be exhausted.
Coming off a hunger strike
Don’t be afraid to stop your hunger strike. There is no shame in protest.
Start reintroducing food whenever you feel ready. There’s a tendency to celebrate when a strike is over, especially when groups are fasting, with copious amounts of food. This is very dangerous. Just as you took time to plan and prepare before your hunger strike, ease off it gradually. Start with meal replacement drinks, non-acidic fruit smoothies and light soups. After a few days try easy to digest fruits and vegetables. Steamed veggies might be easier on your stomach or even purees. When you start eating starches and grains again, begin with dry toast, oatmeal and plain rice. Once you feel comfortable eating again, check with a doctor to make sure there isn’t any long term damage.