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Berkeley Woman Who Prompts Chinese Government to Care for Female Orphans is 2011 Purpose Prize Winner

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Thursday November 03, 2011 - 09:16:00 AM

In 1996, Berkeley resident Jenny Bowen was stunned by a New York Times photo of a starving child in a Chinese welfare institution. Within eighteen months, she had adopted a girl child from Guangzhou, once known to the Western world as Canton. After a year of loving care, the twenty-month old girl was healthy. Later, she adopted another girl. Bowen’s daughters attend Berkeley High School and Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School.

Flash forward two years. These experiences have led Bowen to launch an organization to transform radically the way China cares for its 800,000 orphans (a government statistic that is probably neither valid nor reliable.) The Half the Sky Foundation is among the first United States-based NGOs [Nongovernmental Organizations] to partner with the Chinese government. A pilot program was set up in two provinces: Jaingsu (Jiang Zhu) and An Hu (Anhui). Now, she is advising Beijing on investing $300 million to build three hundred model orphanages, and in the next five years Berkeley-based (715 Hearst Avenue) the Foundation will help to train all of China’s orphanage workers.

Her efforts will be recognized on December 1 when she will be one of five winners of San Francisco's Civic Ventures' Purpose Prizes.

Five $100,000 Purpose Prizes are being awarded to Americans who are making an extraordinary impact in their Encore Careers. Five social entrepreneurs over sixty years of age will each receive $100,000 for using their experience and passion to make an extraordinary impact on some of society’s biggest challenges. Now in its sixth year, the $17 million program is the nation’s only large-scale investment in social innovators in the second half of life. This year, for the first time, one of the five prizes – The Purpose Prize for Intergenerational Innovation, which Bowen will receive -- will be sponsored by AARP. The $100,000 will be used, she says, for “challenge” fund-raising with the Chinese government. 

“The goal of the Half the Sky Foundation is to ensure that every one of China's orphans has a caring adult in her life,” declared Jenny Bowen as we talked recently. She aptly refers to China’s orphans with a feminine gender descriptor! (She avoided discussion of “boomer” and “feminist.”) 

The influx of healthy infant girls into China's welfare institutions began in the 1980s when China introduced strict family planning policies in order to control its burgeoning population. Traditional, especially rural, Chinese families' preference for boys collided with population controls. Healthy girls were abandoned. In recent years, China's floating population of migrant workers has meant an increase in the number of boys as well as girls abandoned by birth parents. Rising health costs have contributed to an influx of children who have medical needs that poor families can not meet.  

I asked Bowen about how she found a way to partner with the Chinese government to transform the care of 800,000 orphans, ninety-five percent of whom are girls. She “started small…reached out… persistence… patience.” Word got out. She met with the Minister of Civil Affairs. In partnership with China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, the Foundation is embarking on a groundbreaking Integrated National Training Plan which, within five years, will make the HTSF approach the mandated national standard of care for all children in the welfare system. 

Wang Zhenyao, former director-general of the welfare department at the Ministry of Civil Affairs, was one of the first officials to back Jenny Bowen, “who just cared about the children and never stopped.” He is now director of the new Beijing Normal University One Foundation Philanthropy Research Institute and of the China Institute for Social Policy. He holds an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a Ph.D. from Beijing University. From Chinese news and magazines, it appears that Wang Zhenyao, unlike most China officials, is outspoken, opens up to outside media and is working hard for the people.  

Bowen believes that the program succeeded because the children were loved.  

Today, the Half the Sky Foundation operates in fifty-one cities in the People’s Republic of China, providing infant care, preschool programs, free medical services for disabled children and financial support for foster families caring for AIDS orphans. Care for more than 60,000 orphans has been improved. 




Jenny Bowen was born in San Francisco. She majored in creative writing at San Francisco State College (now University.) As a Bay Area independent filmmaker, her filmography included the TV movie You Belong to Me Forever, Street Music (1981), shot in the Tenderloin and her first prize winner, and The Wizard of Loneliness (1988). 

Sixty-six year old Bowen, Half the Sky Foundation founder and CEO, is having an encore career. In 2007 she was awarded the American Chamber of Commerce’s Women of Influence Entrepreneur of the Year Award in Hong Kong, and in 2008, the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. She serves on China’s National Committee for Orphans and Disabled Children and on the Expert Consultative Committee for Beijing Normal University’s Philanthropy Research Institute.  

San Francisco’s Civic Ventures is a think tank on boomers, work and social purpose. The organization introduced the concept of encore careers that combine meaning, continued income and social impact. The Purpose Prize, funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies and the John Templeton Foundation, is a program of Civic Ventures. 

On December first, Purpose Prize fellows will be recognized at the 2011 awards ceremony in Sausalito. Approximately three hundred attendees of the invitation-only ceremony will hear from Purpose Prize judges, including NBC’s Jane Pauley and Sherry Lansing, CEO of The Sherry Lansing Foundation and former chair of Paramount Pictures’ Motion Picture Group. 


Half the sky is a portion of the Chinese adage, “Women hold up half the sky,” which is a Mao Tse-Tung (1893-1976) quote. It has been appropriated by at least two movements. First, is the Half the Sky Foundation, emphasizing the fact that almost all of the healthy babies abandoned in China are girls. Second, is Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, a 2009 book by Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas D. Kristof?