CAN THE WOMEN of the world unite and find enough common ground to overcome, at least for the moment, the political, religious and economic differences that divide them? That's the test before the United Nations Women's Decade conference that officially starts on Monday in Nairobi, Kenya.

Many signs are discouraging. Key issues in the draft conference document and even the rules of procedure remain unsettled. Underlying these disagreements are the familiar political issues that disrupted two previous U.N. women's conferences. As one-half of the world's population, women are necessarily involved in these controversies. But discussions of them conducted under U.N. auspices almost inevitably produce sterile posturing.

Leticia Shahani, the Filipino diplomat who will preside over the conference, recognizes that some politicking of this sort is unavoidable. But she -- and many among the more than 10,000 delegates -- hope that the delegates can still focus on the dismal social and economic conditions that remain the common lot of most women.

The Population Reference Bureau sums up those conditions: "Over half of the world's 2.4 billion women are Asian; another 20 percent live in the less developed countries of Africa and Latin America. Globally nearly 50 percent of all women are of child-bearing age and will probably have a total of three to four children. Thus, whatever additional roles women assume, that of motherhood remains the most basic throughout the world." Yet women are also a major part of the world labor force, primarily doing back-breaking work that pays little or notheloping countries is produced by women even as they struggle to bear and rear children and run their households.

These problems are nowhere more evident than on the continent where the conference is being held. In Kenya, a woman can expect to bear eight children while working longer hours than her husband. Her chances of dying in childbirth are 20 times greater than for women in the United States. Even in a country where famine is not rampant, almost one in 10 children will die before the age of 1.

As Blaine Harden reported in this newspaper last week, many Kenyan women want desperately to avoid another pregnancy but cannot because their husbands demand more children as a proof of their virility and because contraceptives are not readily available. Many resort to crudely performed abortions -- one of four admissions to a leading hospital in Nairobi is for a botched abortion attempt. And yet the U.S. government has already cut off its aid to the country's major family planning agency and, through other policy changes, may soon terminate help for other grass-roots and church-run projects.

This is only to say that delegates from every country have something to contribute, and something to account for, in Nairobi.