Television Review | 'Slave Girls of India'

India - The Streets Where the Average Age of a Prostitute Is 14


Lisa Ling with women from her documentary, "Hidden Away: Slave Girls of India."     


June 23, 2007

For her second documentary under the “Who Cares About Girls?” banner, the globetrotting journalist Lisa Ling takes on child prostitution. “Slave Girls of India,” to be shown on the Oxygen channel tomorrow night, has all the elements you might expect from the combustible combination of Ms. Ling and a story about suffering and injustice: hidden cameras, horrifying statistics and emotional close-ups, many of Ms. Ling herself.

There are more than 60 million child laborers in India, she tells us from New Delhi, where she begins by chatting up a tiny, beautiful street vendor.

“Are you in school?” Ms. Ling asks the girl.

A nearby woman responds, “What will she eat then?” The fact is that the girl’s parents, unable to support their daughter, much less educate her, have sent her to the city to make a living.

Soon Ms. Ling is showing us worse situations: girls who work 16-hour days as house servants. Underscoring her point, time-lapse photography documents a child doing housework as a clock ticks the hours away. Viewers familiar with Ms. Ling — at 16, she was the host of a nationally syndicated show for teenagers — might wonder if her feelings about child labor have something to do with her own biography.

The India story becomes only sadder: Ms. Ling tells us that there are half a million “sex slaves” in India, and that the average age of a prostitute is 14.

Much of the hour is devoted to the efforts of Rinku, a 19-year-old who was a prostitute from age 11 to 15. She would “cry like a madwoman,” she remembers. “But nobody came.”

Finally someone did: members of a rescue group. Rinku was saved and went to work for the group, and now administers a cheery halfway house for rescued girl prostitutes. Scenes of these children jumping rope contrast with tense shots of brothel raids in which Ms. Ling takes part.

At one point she goes undercover and is shown young girls in a brothel. “Really good baby beauty,” the madam says, describing one. (The brief statements by Indians here, seen as subtitles, are the most concise and powerful words in this report.)

In the end some girls are rescued, while others’ fates seem undecided. To help two sisters earn legitimate wages, Ms. Ling buys them a sewing machine.

“As journalists,” she says, “we try not to get involved in the stories we cover.”

Ms. Ling has never tried very hard; her specialty is dramatic, heart-on-the-sleeve advocacy journalism. It is an approach that causes discomfort to reporters schooled against coloring facts with their own emotions or changing them with their actions.

But in an era of ubiquitous cameras and proliferating news media outlets, it’s harder than ever to determine when a reporter is stepping over the line, or where, in fact, the line is. Ms. Ling’s style may be troubling, but at least it is transparent.

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